Unlike its broadcast peers, ESPN isn't sweating the impending NFL lockout.
At its upfront presentation Tuesday morning at New York's Best Buy Theater, the Walt Disney Co. sports network outlined several options for its contingency plan in the event that players don't take the field by September. John Skipper, ESPN's exec VP-content, told Ad Age that ESPN may consider adding more Nascar programming if the NFL continues to hold out in its contract negotiations.
"The ratings typically go down after the NFL season starts, so we would work hard to get more Nascar," he said.
And new ad formats are coming to the network's coverage of Nascar's Sprint Cup. Starting Sept. 18, the network will debut a Nascar Nonstop commercial format, which will feature split-screen coverage of major races, with half advertising and half live coverage to avoid interruption during the second round of major races. Until Nonstop, Nascar has been the only sport that still cuts to commercial breaks during key moments in game play, said Mr. Skipper.
But naturally, ESPN is hoping the NFL will play this fall, especially with an exciting schedule on deck. "You just can't replace the NFL. They will come back," Mr. Skipper said.
Meantime, before the potential lockout is the June 6 deadline to bid for the Olympics, which Disney is expected to go after in a big way between ABC Sports and ESPN. "Our multiplatform approach to the content would be very complementary to the [International Olympic Committee]'s interests," said Sean Bratches, ESPN's exec VP-sales and marketing. "We remain an interested party."
ESPN is also focusing on working more directly with marketers on custom-content initiatives. In fact, several marketers, including Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed and executives from Van Heusen, Edible Arrangements and Gillette, provided taped testimonials from recent case studios. Taco Bell's Mr. Creed said a year-end Touchdown Box promotion that aired during ESPN's Bowl Championship Series coverage helped drive traffic and transactions during an already-busy time for the fast-feeder. "We started off our year guns a-blazing," he said.
Gillette teamed up with the network for an integrated-marketing program to promote its ProGlide razor, starring network host Kenny Mayne and the WWE's John Cena. Global President-Grooming Chip Bergh said the brand saw a direct impact on sales as a result. Edible Arrangements saw similar results for a pre-Valentine's Day promotion that drove record transactions in 2010 and a double-digit increase in sales in 2011, per Marketing VP Stephen Thomas.
"To say we're a great partner is nice, but to say we drove your sales is different," said Ed Erhardt, ESPN's president-customer marketing and sales.
Also in store for marketers in 2011 are more cross-platform ad units as part of ESPN's Watch ESPN initiative, a TV Everywhere-like multiplatform approach to distributing sports content. Mr. Bratches said 2.2 million interact with an ESPN app every day, while live-streaming subscription site ESPN 3 has already attracted 50 advertisers. Mr. Erhardt said Nielsen's upcoming efforts to measure iPad video-viewing will make ESPN easier to buy across platforms with centralized measurement.
And keep an eye out for more female programming on ESPN's airwaves. ESPN W, a new content initiative and website that formally launched last month, will be featured heavily in ESPN's cross-network coverage of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup from June 26 to July 17. It's also behind a new series of short films, "HERoics," about women's contributions to the soccer world. The films will debut on ESPN and also air on ABC leading up to the World Cup.
ESPN W also opens up ESPN to female-targeted advertisers, a category the network hasn't interacted with much in years' past. Early sponsors include Procter & Gamble's Venus and Secret brands as well as Nike and Gatorade. "These companies have done tremendous business with us over the years, but they've started more products aimed at women in the athletic and active space, i.e. Nike and Gatorade," Mr. Erhardt said. "Now we're able to take the business relationship we have with those two brands on ESPN and build on that ."
And with married women outweighing married men in sports consumption on social-media -- 63.7% to 36 .3%, per a recent Ad Age report -- the need for marketers to reach female sports fans on a dedicated basis is only increasing. "This new generation of women that are super active, very competitive and have always grown up playing sports are now more decision-makers in the household," ESPN W VP Laura Gentile told Ad Age . "We want to start talking to [the female consumer] and engaging her in conversation. The advertising marketplace has been willing to work with us and talk to us. All the conversations so far have been very positive."