Rita Ferro takes over ESPN ad sales; Ed Erhardt to retire

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Rita Ferro is taking over ESPN ad sales as Ed Erhardt, who had overseen the efforts at the "Worldwide Leader In Sports" for two decades, gets ready to retire next year.

Credit: ESPN

As a result, ESPN inventory will be sold alongside ABC and Disney's other cable networks, an effort that has been attempted in the past, but not fully realized.

The move comes as Disney prepares for its acquisition of many of 21st Century Fox's assets, including cable networks like FX and NatGeo.

Ferro, whose new title is president of Disney ad sales, has been leading advertising for Disney's entertainment, news and kids' properties, which includes ABC, since February 2017, when the company reorganized its ad sales efforts for each division under one executive.

Since she took the reins, Ferro has been looking for ways to allow advertisers to do deals across the company's entire portfolio, including ESPN, which historically had been kept at an arms length from the rest of the Mouse House's sales operations.

Last year, Ferro and Erhardt worked together on what they dubbed the "Disney Difference," an opportunity for marketers to extend their partnerships to also incorporate its movie studio, consumer products and on-the-ground activations at its theme parks, for example, as part of an all-encompassing ad buy.

While there have been shows of such unity between the alphabet network and ESPN in the past (like when Erhardt and former ABC sales chief Geri Wang appeared at each other's upfronts) buyers have said it didn't result in a meaningful amount of business done in this way.

Earlier this year, Disney reorganized the company into four segments, which resulted in global advertising sales shifting from Disney Media Networks to a new direct-to-consumer and international segment. The goal was to provide advertisers a one-stop-shop to reach audiences across all of Disney's properties including its online and OTT platforms.

Erhardt has been overseeing ad sales at ESPN since 1999 and in 2015 he added oversight of its marketing and research groups. Early in his tenure, Erhardt combined ABC Sports and ESPN sales groups into one unified sales organization.

"Ed has been trying to make this move for some time, but he has been generous enough to see the company through some changes in recent months, including serving as a trusted advisor through my onboarding process," Jimmy Pitaro, who took over as president of ESPN earlier this year, wrote in a memo to employees.

The ESPN flagship network first took in north of $1 billion in ad sales during Erhardt's first full year on the job. Last year that number was just shy of $3 billion.

Erhardt has been instrumental in pushing the industry to adopt measurement that accounts for audiences watching sports outside the home. He established ESPN's in-house, branded content agency, CreativeWorks, in 2010; introduced the double-box ad treatment (when an ad runs in a box on screen while the race is running) in 2005 during the IndyCar Series; and forged a highly-coveted sponsorship deal between "College GameDay" and Home Depot. Erhardt landed more than dozen sponsors for ESPN's new College Football Playoff series—among them sports blue chippers like Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, Goodyear, Ford and Allstate.

Erhardt made noise when in 2007 he scheduled ESPN's upfront presentation during the traditional broadcast upfront week, making ESPN the first cable network to do so.

Prior to ESPN, Erhardt served as vice president and group publisher of Ad Age, launching AdAge.com in 1994.

Contributing: Anthony Crupi

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