To hear Judy Fearing tell it, that's what happened at ESPN a little over two years ago.
"It was more like we had an epiphany," says Ms. Fearing, ESPN's senior VP-consumer marketing. "We realized we had a product in ESPN that was somewhat addictive to its core audience. Once we had that epiphany, we crafted a well thought-out plan: wherever sports fans watch, read and discuss sports, ESPN is going to be there."
For its ability to turn an epiphany into a business strategy, to extend its brand into new, revenue-generating arenas with vehicles that further reinforce the core brand, and to package all its inventory for advertisers, Advertising Age has named ESPN its Cable TV Marketer of the Year.
FOR SPORTS JUNKIES
Sports junkies can now find ESPN There are now three cable TV networks: core brand ESPN, which reaches 71 million homes; ESPN2, the spinoff targeted to younger adult males, with penetration of 40 million; and sports-news channel ESPNEWS, which launched last month with 1.5 million households.
There's also ESPN Radio Network, with 420 affiliates; the ESPNET SportsZone World Wide Web site [http://espnet. sportszone.com], one of the most-visited sites in cyberspace; and ESPN Total Sports magazine, jointly produced with Hearst Magazine Enterprises eight times a year.
There's an ESPN Sports Club in Walt Disney World and ESPNET TO GO, a wireless pager distributed worldwide through Motorola, for the truly addicted.
The branding vision at ESPN comes from President-CEO Steve Bornstein. In the early '90s, Mr. Bornstein, inspired by research results, by the renaissance in branding and by the example set by future parent Walt Disney Co., hired the staff to manage and extend the brand.
In 1992, Mr. Bornstein hired Dick Glover from the World Wrestling Federation to head ESPN Enterprises, the company's business division. Nearly three years ago, Mr. Bornstein hired Ms. Fearing, a Nabisco Foods and Pepsi-Cola Co. marketing vet, to market ESPN's brand and products.
The image these executives are promoting is that "ESPN is a huge sports fan," Ms. Fearing says.
"We understand that sports is part of the social currency," she adds. "When people go to work or a party or any type of gathering, they talk about sports. . . . As the leading supplier of that information, we are an important part of that exchange."
INDISPENSABLE BUT . . .
To underscore its role in that process, Ms. Fearing's team and ESPN agency Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., have created ad campaigns that position ESPN as indispensable, but not self-important.
"What we're saying is, we take sports seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously," says Ms. Fearing.
The "This is SportsCenter" mock-documentary ads for the network's news show were slapstick and sometimes Felliniesque-and merited the Best of Show award among TV spots in Advertising Age's Best Awards for 1995. Spots for college basketball telecasts featured jingles from Robert Goulet.
"We don't do vignettes made up of game footage or tune-ins. We want to produce talked-about advertising," says Ms. Fearing, who credits Wieden for pushing the envelope.
To launch ESPNEWS, Ms. Fearing leveraged "SportsCenter's" stable of celebrity anchors. Gritty b&w print ads suggested the credibility of a major newspaper, but the much too up-close head shots of the anchors and the humorous copy captured "SportsCenter's" irreverence.
Ms. Fearing wouldn't say how much her group spent on any campaigns; in 1995, ESPN put $19.3 million into measured media advertising, according to Competitive Media Reporting.
If it sounds like Ms. Fearing has a fun job, check out Mr. Glover, who marvels, "I don't know how I got the best job at ESPN. It's new, all the time-new ideas, new energy, new opportunities."
In his four years as senior VP of ESPN Enterprises, Mr. Glover has guided the ESPN brand into magazine publishing, wireless pagers, videogames, CD-ROMs and music.
BUILDING LONG-TERM BUSINESSES
Mr. Glover isn't into licensing one-time products but building long-term businesses. Music partner Tommy Boy Records has marketed five ESPN CDs so far, two of which have gone gold, or sold 500,000 copies. The compilations are suited to certain genres of music or ESPN properties. Plans call for one new CD each year, the next being "ESPN Slam Jams," coming Feb 9.
"We look at whether we need partners or licensees," says Mr. Glover, who notes that any brand extension must enhance and enlarge the core business. "We distinguish between a promotional opportunity and a true new business venture. It's very disciplined. We're talking standard business-school, P&L stuff."
Mr. Glover is especially proud of two recent extensions: ESPNET SportsZone and Club ESPN at Walt Disney World.
Since its launch in April 1995, ESPNET SportsZone has garnered 20 million hits a week, making it one of the most popular sites on the Internet.
Advertisers also have taken to the site. According to Jupiter Communications, ESPNET ranked ninth in ad revenue among all sites, with $4.1 million in ad revenue for the year through September. The advertiser roster includes Visa USA, Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade, Toyota Motor Sales USA and Pizza Hut.
ESPN Club, meanwhile, is a 13,000-square-foot space is divided into three sections: sports bar, arcade and broadcast studio. The environment is respectable yet fun.
Don't expect to see a ESPN Club franchise, though, at least, not in the form presented at Walt Disney World.
"We'd love to develop ESPN entertainment centers. . . . But it's never going to be a franchise. Moreover, you're never going to see ESPN on 3,000 street corners. We are looking at some opportunities, but we have no specific plan yet," says Mr. Glover.
Mr. Glover wouldn't take back any extensions, but that doesn't mean all have succeeded. One in particular is a line of sports instructional CD-ROMs launched in 1993, perhaps too early in the development of the CD-ROM marketplace. Expect ESPN to return when demand warrants it.
PACKAGING AND SELLING
Packaging and selling brand extensions to advertisers is the job of George Bodenheimer, exec VP-sales and marketing.
ESPNEWS' charter advertisers included Coors Brewing Co., General Motors Corp., Levi Strauss & Co., McDonald's Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co.
"Once upon a time, our company was our network and our network was our company. Those says are gone. We are selling and creating all the time," Mr. Bodenheimer says.
That means that in addition to selling programs licensed from a sports entity like pro sports leagues, ESPN is creating proprietary content it can package, sell, program and merchandise.
Case-in-point: The X Games, targeting 10 to 24 year olds, is the brand affixed to two events positioned as the Olympics for alternative sports such as skateboarding and in-line skating in summer and ice climbing and snowboarding in the winter games. It bows Dec. 30.
AT&T Corp., Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Mountain Dew, P&G's Pringles, Taco Bell and Volkswagen are among the Winter X Games "gold level" sponsors. They get ad time across all ESPN TV platforms in the U.S. and abroad, and on ESPN SportsZone. They also get on-site signage and retail benefits. Value of the packages wasn't disclosed, but associate level sponsorships have been reportedly priced at $500,000.
Ratings projections for the Winter X Games are low-1.5 household rating for ESPN, 0.6 on ESPN2, according to published reports-but marketers are taking advantage of a vehicle that reaches an elusive niche.
`CO-BRAND WITH US'
"Advertisers are telling us they want to do more than buy time on us, but also co-brand with us," says Mr. Bodenheimer. "The X Games is a great example of the yearround programs with various legs that we want to create."
ESPN will head into 1997 with two new competitors jockeying for channel space-Fox Sports, from News Corp., and CNN/SI, from Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting Systems-each capable of executing integrated marketing and branding programs similar to ESPN's. Although Mr. Bodenheimer is confident in the power of the ESPN brand, he has nary a bad word for his new challengers.
"We're never going to take our viewers for granted," says Mr. Bodenheimer. "We know we have to deliver quality programming and can't be complacent about the success we've enjoyed. If we accomplish all that, we will continue to prosper."