|Photo: Bryan Haraway|
George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN, has managed to turn ESPN into a scalable multiplatform brand at a time when even his noncore competitors are struggling to draw consumers to their various assets.
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That's a lot for any one person to handle, but George Bodenheimer has overseen all those properties since 1998, when he became president of ESPN. He added president-ABC Sports to his title in 2003, after spearheading the integration of ESPN content into sibling Disney network ABC. It's a far cry from his start at the company in 1981 as a junior member of the administration department.
A 1980 graduate of Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he and fellow alum and former Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner occasionally still make joint visits, Mr. Bodenheimer, 46, has been immersed in the ESPN brand his entire career. So when Ed Erhardt was asked to come over from this very magazine to head Mr. Bodenheimer's sales group, he knew he was in good hands. "George had the vision originally to put ABC and ESPN together at a time when no one was really combining sports inventory for cable and broadcast," Mr. Erhardt said.
The cable-sports business continues to rise to new heights in competition and abundance of content, with Turner Sports, Fox Sports Network, Vs. and the Big Ten Network, which will launch this summer, among those vying for the chance to sit near ESPN's throne. But Mr. Bodenheimer has managed to leverage a stable of more than 40 businesses into a rarity for any TV network -- a viable multiplatform brand. While the broadcast networks are still building the scale and reach necessary to attract major ad business and consumer traffic to the web, ESPN.com reaches 22.4 million viewers a week. In any seven-day period in the fall of 2006, 102 million people ages 12 to 64 interacted with some form of ESPN media (120 million if you count ABC Sports), a 5% increase over that period in 2005.
ESPN scored the highest rating for any cable series when "Monday Night Football" earned a 9.9 household rating last year. As Sean Cunningham, CEO of the Cable Advertising Bureau, put it, "If you only had a few seconds to talk about the predominance of cable, you might just say, '"Monday Night Football" is on ESPN.'"
ESPN isn't challenging its broadcast counterparts only in the ratings. In last year's upfront, the network wrote $1.8 billion in TV deals (the same as Fox), and that doesn't even include revenue from all its off-network properties. So it's no surprise ESPN is the first cable network to host its upfront presentation during the same week as Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC, with which it will share Tuesday as a "Disney day" for media buyers looking to invest their dollars in multiple Mouse properties.
The networks are teaming up this year for a partnership with Cox cable systems that will allow viewers to access certain programming on demand the morning after its airs -- with no ad-skipping allowed. The deal likely will be the first of many to disable the fast-forward option. The project was the brainchild of Mr. Bodenheimer and Cox's Pat Esser, his co-chairman for the Cable Show in Las Vegas last week. The Cox announcement is coupled with ABC's on-demand offering of shows such as "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives" that it will roll out as part of its upfront presentation Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Bodenheimer promised a show both entertaining and informative, and Mr. Erhardt said the theme will be "ESPN on Broadway." "Picture it like you're in Bristol in the middle of a 'This is SportsCenter' being shot. That's the environment. It's a one-hour story of sports, love and cross-platform marketing," he said. Expect appearances from a few surprise athletes and the network's own Mike and Mike.
Just an hour before he kicked things off at the Cable Show, Mr. Bodenheimer sat down with Ad Age to speak about the enduring power of the ESPN brand, opportunities for advertisers and, yes, gas stations.
MediaWorks: This will be the first time you've stacked your wares against the broadcast networks' during the same week in the upfront. Ed Erhardt has talked a lot about how the various ESPN platforms will be bundled into a lot more deals and how you're going after more than just sports budgets. From a scheduling standpoint, what were you hoping to accomplish?
George Bodenheimer: It was a tangible way for us to demonstrate the world of our entire brand. And in this case, actions speak louder than words. Ed works closely with Mike Shaw [ABC's head of sales], and together they're looking to provide value to our advertisers.
MediaWorks: Mike Shaw is also looking to lead the pack in the commercial-ratings equation by anchoring the pod through the programming starting this fall. How will you experiment with that data at ESPN?
Mr. Bodenheimer: We're not looking at the commercial-ratings aspect this year. As the technology and information moves, we'll continue to evaluate that on the ESPN side of the ledger. There's a lot at stake in this business on the network side and the executive side. We're focused on getting it right.
MediaWorks: You've managed to turn ESPN into a scalable multiplatform brand at a time when even your noncore competitors are struggling to draw consumers to their various assets. What's working?
Mr. Bodenheimer: We're taking quality product with Nascar, National Football League and the National Basketball Association and spreading it across the widest collection of media assets. ... We're truly leading the way in terms of integrated sales. ... If you like to associate your product just through ESPN, you know a sports fan will enjoy the product everywhere. We put your message in front of the fans.
MediaWorks: You have one more platform to sell on this year: Gas Station TV, which added your ad-supported content to its ABC News programming in Atlanta, Dallas and Houston last week. How does that fit in?
Mr. Bodenheimer: Now you're not going to be bored when you fill up your tank. It gives new meaning to pulling into a full-service station. I've been on flights where people are watching our content and don't want to get off the flight so they can see the rest of our event. Our CEO, Bob Iger, is really focused on creating the best content we can at Disney and distributing it as widely as we possibly can. So this is in line with the mission Bob set for the company -- we need to reach people and remain aligned with advertisers.
MediaWorks: ESPN's core strength is its reach with young men. How do you keep them loyal?
Mr. Bodenheimer: Nobody attracts more men than we do. We've got a product and we know how to cater to advertisers' needs. The merchandising opportunities we provide, whether it's working with Home Depot, Wal-Mart or Dick's Sporting Goods, we want to partner if you want young men.
MediaWorks: You've also served your demo without being intrusive and being more contextual with your partnerships. How do you keep from overwhelming those sports fans with the ESPN name and logo?
Mr. Bodenheimer: It's really easy. We've never overestimated fans' demands for sports product, and we've never overestimated how passionate people are about sports. We saw long ago we've got to take our product with them and that our mission was to take sports fans where they want to go.
MediaWorks: You scored the highest ratings for any cable series with "Monday Night Football." How does that change the game?
Mr. Bodenheimer: It's a tribute to the power of ESPN, a tribute to the ESPN brand and the "Monday Night Football" brand as the greatest sports-TV property. It's a lesson in appointment viewing because you have the built-in promotion platform with the name alone -- it literally is Monday-night football. We've raised ratings 40%, and our marketing department did a great job with the campaign, "Is it Monday yet?"
MediaWorks: You wrote a record $1.8 billion last year. What are you going to tell buyers and marketers to get them to pony up again?
Mr. Bodenheimer: We have a very strong brand, and we're focused on bringing value to our advertisers. We're really optimistic that we've produced an entertaining show.