ESPN has struck a deal to collaborate on making branded digital content and original programming with the media network Cycle, which evolved from an internal influencer management division at Laundry Service to a sibling content company last year.
"This provides the opportunity to create socially branded content—something both of our companies are doing, but we do it in different ways—and we bring it together as one, so using the scale and authority in sports that ESPN and Cycle's expertise in creative," says Eric Johnson, ESPN's executive VP of global advertising revenue and sales operations.
Johnson says the goal is to help marketers reach a wider group of consumers by combining ESPN's media properties with Cycle's own distribution channels, creative capabilities and endorsers in social media. While ESPN has brand equity and decades of experience entertaining big audiences, part of the pitch is that the fledgling Cycle is nimble and can speak to a younger demographic.
Johnson declined to identify any clients but says they are talking to "blue-chip accounts" across major categories, such as automotive, insurance, distilled spirits and quick-service restaurants.
Through the partnership, Cycle will work to create "highly distributable and engaging content that's tied to conversations of interest and what's going on today" for brands that already advertise with ESPN, says Jason Kelly, Cycle's chief strategy officer. While the content will take a variety of forms, Kelly says the majority will be video. Earlier this year, Cycle created the "Come Out of Nowhere" branded content series for Nike.
Cycle, which has 3,000 influencers and athletes in its network, 250 million views per month across its distribution channels, with extended network channels seeing upwards of three billion monthly views, Kelly says.
Kelly says audiences are looking for and expecting engaging content from brands today. "If you're going to interrupt my experience, it has to be good and relevant to keep me," he says. "The bar has been set so high."
Cycle will work with advertisers on sponsorship opportunities—similar to its work with Snapple to sponsor the breakdowns of the NBA Finals—and original and custom branded content. Kelly points to ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series as an example. "The stories are deep and fantastic," he says. "However, you're not always available to sit down for 30 minutes, but maybe for three minutes on devices you're already using." This doesnt mean, though, that Cycle and ESPN won't team up on longer form original programming down the line.
The content isn't meant to replace traditional ads—it's "additive," allowing ESPN and its clients to reach consumers in different ways, says Johnson. ESPN will also work with Cycle to figure out how to use the content across channels including digital, social and TV.
"Cycle creates engaging content that resonates with young, digital audiences," says Connor Schell, ESPN's executive VP of content. The partnership allows ESPN to reach fans on and off of its traditional platforms as it continues to expand and experiment with its social content, he says.
Johnson says the first work from the partnership is expected before the end of the year.
Over the summer, Laundry Service CEO and Founder Jason Stein announced the formation of Cycle Media, a holding company to house both Laundry Service and Cycle. The umbrella company, which is a subsidiary of Wasserman Media Group, has $150 million worth of capital for initial acquisitions.