For ESPN and Fox Sports, Native Comes Naturally

No Handwringing For the Major Players

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ESPN Fan Shop presented by Dick's
ESPN Fan Shop presented by Dick's

Leave the tortured navel-gazing about native advertising to the daily newspapers. Online sports media outfits ESPN and Fox Sports are moving full speed ahead.

ESPN's web site features multiple native ad efforts, from content that's created specifically for or with marketers to the old-fashioned content embedding brands that sports franchises on TV have pioneered. The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports has teamed with Dick's Sporting Good's to create an "ESPN Fan Shop" at ESPN.com. There's also "MLB Power Rankings Powered by Subway." (Click on the section and video ads starring Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Justin Tuck of the Oakland Raiders pop up).

These integrations follow MillerCoors' successful "Coors Light Cold Hard Facts" play with ESPN, which has since migrated to the network's flagship SportsCenter show.

Of course, sports media and sports in general aren't strangers to this area.

The New York Times may have only rolled out its first native ads in January 2014. But Ed Erhardt, ESPN's president of global customer marketing and sales, said the sports industry has been doing the equivalent of native advertising for decades.

All you have to do is remember efforts like IBM"s long-running "You Make the Call" campaign during NFL telecasts to see that sports and native ads go together like beer and hot dogs, he said.

"Our belief is sports is the most natural place for native ads because you mix a brand with the content all together," Mr. Erhardt said.

That means the media companies and the marketers are veterans.

"There's really good stuff coming out of our advertising partners," said Rob King, senior VP of "SportsCenter" and news, at ESPN's upfront presentation to advertisers in New York this month. "That level of content you're getting from people who are trying to tell their own stories, and drive their own brands, actually makes for a much more entertaining hour if you ask me."

On the other hand, Mr. King noted there's still plenty of times where you visit a web site or story page "where the elements" on that page collide. His bottom line: "It probably behooves all of us to figure out a way for it to work more seamlessly."

Many sports sites today begin as startups, without decades of tradition around the separation of ads and editorial, before being acquired by bigger media entities. So they're well-versed in the concept of native ads, often moreso than older competitors.

That's the story with Pete Vlastelica, exec VP-digital for Fox Sports. Mr. Vlastelica co-founded the sports site Yardbarker in 2006. When Yardbarker was acquired by Fox in 2010, Mr. Vlastelica brought his native ad experience with him. He's now completely redesigned FoxSports.com with an eye toward native and mobile. And he's linking it directly with the new Fox Sports 1 cable channel.

"We were doing so-called native advertising long before anybody ever called it that. It wasn't because we created anything new. It was because that where the value was, that's what brands were looking for. That's what we needed to do in order to compete with the big buys in the category," said Mr. Vlastelica.

The "knock" on native ads from investors or people watching the space, he noted, is that it doesn't scale all that well.

"In other words, it's less efficient to run native programs than it may be to run something that's programmatic or display-driven. We found ways to get the cost down. The way we do that is by actually producing the kind of content for brands that we'd be producing anyway -- and getting brands to get on board."

During Super Bowl XLVIII, for example, Ford sponsored a native campaign from Fox, YouTube and SpaceLA called "Digital VideoFest," where a dozen YouTube channel creators engaged in a video "hackathon" to come up with original sports videos.

The winning video (featuring two anchors singing rather than narrating sports highlights) got an on-air plug on Fox's Super Bowl pregame show, according to Mr. Vlastelica. The idea was hatched after a conversation with Ford, he added.

"They were looking for some way to co-create a video series with a publisher like us. So we put the whole concept together with a brand on board. They did some branded bumpers and had a lot of media surrounding the program. That program made it easier to do with Ford on-board. But we would have essentially done the same program without a sponsor. That's why it worked so well. We weren't trying to force something for the sake of driving some revenue. We really did build it together with our partner."

More recently, Fox partnered with McDonald's for a "McDonald's Winning Ingredients" campaign (which asked football fans to vote on which team they thought had the best NFL draft) and Samsung for "In the Cage with Gabe Kapler."

Said Mr. Vlastelica: "I would like to think we're being seen as more flexible, more creative, more innovative and maybe more idea-driven. We've certainly in the past year sold more idea-driven programs than we had prior to that. A lot of sponsored video programs. A lot of sponsored post programs. So judging by the results, and the revenue we're driving through with sponsored content, I think advertisers are responding pretty well."

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