Upfront 07

ESPN Gets Serious About Putting On a Show

Upfront Presentation Includes Broadway Cast

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As the first cable network to hold a presentation during the same week as the broadcast networks, ESPN had already set itself part. But the sports empire took its Broadway debut at Times Square's Nokia Theater quite seriously by constructing a fully produced 90-minute show around its key executives, multiplatform brands and well-known talent.
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At ESPN's upfront presentation, the sport's cable giant told a musical story of 'sports, love and cross-platform marketing.'

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Erhardt's a star
"We like to think at ESPN that we don't always take ourselves seriously," said ESPN sales chief Ed Erhardt, starring as himself in a role the show's announcer noted would normally be played by Harrison Ford. Mr. Erhardt was one of four network executives woven into a presentation that employed actual Broadway actors to tell a musical story of "sports, love and cross-platform marketing."

Twelve-year-old Broadway actress Delaney Moro, in a role as a sports-savvy daughter of a major media buyer, interrupted Mr. Erhardt's presentation and asked him to keep things short. "Don't you read Ad Age? Just cut to the intro," she taunted. "I do read Ad Age," Mr. Erhardt, a former publisher for the magazine, replied. "And sometimes they put my picture in it."

Ms. Moro then asked her media-buying dad (comedic actor Joel Hurt Jones) to tell her a marketing story, and he pulled out a large storybook and began to regale her with the tale of "Freeze," a fictional basketball player made famous for executing a 900-degree spin before making a slam dunk.

Symbol of brand building
Freeze (film actor Cedric Sanders) was used to illustrate all the ways ESPN can build a brand both for an athlete and the marketers attached to one. The show tracked his career through a series of pre-recorded segments from "Sports Center" to ESPN's Spanish-language network Deportes to ESPN Asia. Even ESPN Classic was in the mix, as Freeze's 900-degree spin-shot was used to segue into a 900-minute marathon of the best "cool under pressure" performances from notoriously hot-headed coaches and athletes.

Interspersed through several of the segments were musical numbers belted out by Broadway actress Shayna Steele, who declared there "ain't no other man" compared to Freeze, a musical phrase later changed to "ain't no other brand" to conveniently tie into ESPN. Tennis phenom Venus Williams also made a cameo alongside a Freeze ice-cream cart, quipping that she never offers a "soft serve."

At one point, Freeze acquired an agent (Broadway actress Kelly McAndrew) who borrows the name of Universal McCann's Donna Wolfe to get sports marketers and ESPN executives to listen to her. Later, Freeze and his agent encountered Sean Bratches, ESPN's exec VP-sales and marketing, who began spouting off ESPN's "brand promise" to advertisers. "ESPN is sports with authority and personality," he said. "Sports is what we do, authority is how we do it and personality is what sets us apart."

Platform wheel
Mr. Bratches added that 102 million Americans interact with some form of ESPN content in a typical week, with the average American spending 54 minutes a day interacting with that content. He then pointed to the "wheel" of platforms into which Freeze could be integrated.

Finally, Freeze and Co. encountered John Skipper, ESPN's exec VP of content, for a detailed update on the network's programming lineup. "Sports Center," the network's top-rated news show, will air its 300th in-house spot this summer -- the world premiere of spot No. 292 came during the presentation. Even more palatable to marketers, however, was Mr. Erhardt's announcement that ESPNews would be selling the "A" position of its commercial pods. He gave an example of a Derek Jeter interview where a Gatorade logo would flash at the end of the programming for a more seamless transition into the Gatorade ad, which naturally starred Freeze.

At the end of the scripted story, Freeze wrapped up a subplot involving the object of his affection, a female curling champ, who encouraged him to pursue a branded career with ESPN. After all, she said, "No woman can give a man what ESPN can."

How buyers felt
Was the highly theatrical show a success? John Miles, MediaCom's director of investments, gave it a so-so review. "It was sort of unusual to use the conversation with an advertiser throughout the presentation, but I don't know if that's relevant," he said. He was also not sold on the concept that ESPN is the ultimate destination for all sports content. "I don't think I'd necessarily jump to the conclusion that they're the best out there, but clearly they have a breadth of offerings and can deliver on the platforms for what a marketer's looking for."

Jeremy Carey, associate director of sports media for OMD's Optimum Sports, however, loves the opportunities ESPN has for branded integrations. "Obviously our stance would be to get involved early," he said. As for the presentation? "I think it definitely worked. You've gotta be a little entertaining for that early-morning slot."
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