Disney Touts ESPN's International Expansion

At UBS Media Conference: George Bodenheimer

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a year when ABC took the most dollars in this spring's broadcast upfront and the Disney Channel broke cable ratings records with "High School Musical 2," it's curious that George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, was selected as Walt Disney Co.'s representative at the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference this week.
George Bodenheimer
George Bodenheimer Credit: Bryan Haraway

But when you look at the numbers, ESPN is the source of significant growth to the company in recent years. This year's Ad Age Media 100 report, published in October, showed Disney's cable networks (of which ESPN is the primary revenue generator; the Disney Channel is not ad-supported) increased revenue by 12% to $9.17 billion in 2007, and another 10% from the same period in 2005.

On a par with ABC
ESPN's cable business also raked in $5.28 billion, or nearly one-third of Disney's $16.84 billion U.S. media revenue. That puts it on par with ABC, which accounted for $5.88 billion in 2007, a 1% decrease from 2006.

With these stats and a growing international presence in his arsenal, Mr. Bodenheimer could justify spending 50 minutes of his hour-long panel making a Power Point-enhanced sales pitch to investors. "What drives us is we've never stopped creating products for sports fans," he told the audience. "Understanding that culture and thought process makes us poised for growth at ESPN."

A key part of that strategy is rolling out ESPN's global presence, with ESPN International currently in 14 countries. The network has also taken an international approach to its online investments, thinking outside the football, basketball and baseball coverage that has been the network's bread and butter. Recent investments include Cricinfo.com (for cricket lovers), Scrum.com (for rugby fans, but "mostly because we liked the name," he joked) and Soccernet, which he has expanded into four languages in the past year.

TV deals
On the TV side, ESPN recently acquired the North American Sports Network in Europe, expanding its reach to 10 million viewers in 35 different European countries. A full rebrand of the network under the ESPN name will follow in 2008.

Similarly, Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, which started in the U.S., has rolled out to Mexico and Argentina in recent months. Domestically, ESPN has already officially rebranded all its content on ABC Sports, so that any sporting event on ABC will be specifically identified as ESPN content.

Next month comes the next step in Mr. Bodenheimer's plan to enhance ESPN's multiplatform brand strength: ScoreCenter.com. The site is in keeping with the company's global strategy by bringing sports fans streaming scores in every significant game from around the world. That includes handball, a sport currently favored by Mr. Bodenheimer after catching a recent game in India when it played Pakistan.

Football competition
But ESPN's TV dominance has seen competition recently from football-based cable channels like Big Ten Network and NFL Network getting exclusive rights to key games and prompting furor between consumers and the cable operators who can't carry the networks. Mr. Bodenheimer said rather diplomatically of the new players: "There's never been a better time to be in the business of sports entertainment. Fans can access more products on more devices at their will. Anything that drives interest in that content and demand for sports content is in our wheelhouse."

And if he ever wants out of his gig of the last nine years, Mr. Bodenheimer could also pursue a career as game-show host. He kicked off his presentation with a trivia question on how many "This is SportsCenter" promo spots the network has produced since 1997, promising an ESPN T-shirt as a prize. After a distant audience member shouted the correct answer (300), Mr. Bodenheimer demonstrated another quality that makes him well-suited for his role as president of ESPN: an impressive throwing arm. He tossed the T-shirt to the trivia winner with the effortless precision of an NFL quarterback.
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