In what may be the most aggressive Internet ad sales effort to date, the cable TV sports channel is asking a whopping $1 million for charter sponsorships of ESPNET, its online service that will expand soon from Prodigy to the World Wide Web and other commercial services.
Advertising-free to date, ESPNET will be rolled out in an ad-supported format shortly after the one-year exclusive Prodigy deal expires in April.
"We look to the Internet as a way to expand our online reach," said Dick Glover, senior VP of ESPN Enterprises, the unit overseeing ESPN's interactive online extensions.
Mr. Glover said ESPN already has developed editorial content for its Web site and is now approaching advertisers as "development partners" to flesh out the advertising content.
Ideally, the network wants to lock in six to eight advertisers on a category-exclusive basis to participate in the first year of the site. Target categories include traditional ESPN advertisers: beer, automotive and financial services.
ESPN is sure to approach Anheuser-Busch to participate. The brewer helped launch the channel and has been a major advertiser since.
ESPN hasn't yet determined how to measure the advertisers' involvement.
"As far as advertising content goes, that's a blank page," said Mr. Glover. "There are a lot of ways to measure it. There's screen sizes. Screen pages. Number of accesses, or user time spent. There are a million ways we can go."
As for the editorial content, ESPNET will be everything ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNET on Prodigy currently are but with much more available.
Recently, ESPN acquired Sports Ticker from Dow Jones & Co., with the express strategy of integrating the sports statistic database into ESPNET.
"Ideally, we see three revenue streams for ESPNET," said Mr. Glover. "There's licensing fees from distributors. There's premium and pay-per-use fees from users. And then there's advertising."
Although advertising values for ESPNET are still highly conceptual, Mr. Glover said ESPN has proven content and brand identity that will attract users to a Web site.
"The ESPN name-will that drive traffic? Yeah. But they're really not offering any other sports information you can't get from other databases," said Andrew J. Pakula, senior partner and co-director of interactive media development at Bozell, New York.
Mr. Pakula, who has seen the ESPNET presentation, is dubious about the advertising value of the service, but noted that it ultimately could be a positive for Internet marketing.
"If they do get someone to sign up, wonderful. The whole [Internet marketing] industry will be taken seriously," he said. "[But] you have to come up with the rationale and what the return on investment will be."
ESPN executives aren't exactly sure what that return will be, but as Senior VP-Advertising Sales Jack Bonanni notes, "They will accrue into the future.
"These people will have an advantage over everybody else in their category. They will have a favored nation relationship, because they will be helping us develop the service."
Debra Aho Williamson contributed to this story.