Television, THR Online, Upfronts 2018, USA

Inside ESPN’s Upfront: Jimmy Pitaro’s Debut, Cord-Cutting, A-Rod, Kobe Bryant

ESPN’s pitch to advertisers is essentially sports sells itself.

It’s a new day at ESPN. That was apparent after ESPN’s presentation to advertisers when newly minted president Jimmy Pitaro addressed reporters from a podium set up outside the mezzanine at the Minskoff Theatre. Pitaro, who was named president earlier this year and in the wake of his predecessor John Skipper’s abrupt departure last December. Skipper, who subsequently revealed that he stepped down because of an extortion plot, scrummed with reporters in a corner. Or as Pitaro put it; “A couple of years ago it was John Skipper on a fire escape.”

ESPN’s pitch to advertisers is essentially sports sells itself. And they have a point. Despite some softening for NFL ratings, there is still no other genre of television that matter more to advertisers than the kind watched live. Despite some softening for the NFL regular season, the NBA is up (on Turner and ESPN). The network – like most cable nets – has seen its subscriber base contract (presently 87 million compared to a peak of more than 100 million 15 years ago). OTT service ESPN+ is still in its infancy – launched in April analysts have estimated that the $5-month platform has about 100,000 subs. ESPN has not revealed an official number.

But ESPN personality Kenny Mayne offered bracing reality in the form of comic relief. Mayne took the stage of the Minskoff Theatre dressed as a yoga guru in a white Kurta pajama. “Does anybody have any clue what the future is going to bring?” asked Maybe. “ESPN does, not just this year, next year and in perpetuity throughout the universe.”

Later ad sales chief Ed Erhardt wrapped up the presentation with the final pitch to buyers. Sports, he said, is the most “elusive and valuable in all of media and we have it.”

THE SPIN Pitaro – who is still commuting between Los Angeles and Connecticut – took the stage early to set the table for the network’s sales pitch. He thanked Disney Media Networks co-president Ben Sherwood (his former Burbank colleague), he put a positive spin on shifting consumer behavior that has led to steady erosion of ESPN’s (and other nets) subscriber base. ESPN “has a unique combination of strengths,” said Pitaro, pointing the net’s “unique combination of strengths” including the “unrivaled emotional connection” created by sports. Which basically translates to, don’t worry, we’ve got this digital thing, and we’re still the biggest thing in live sports.

THE PITCH Like most cable nets, ESPN’s advertising and subscriber revenue has been challenged by cord cutting. If Tricia Betron, ESPN’s senior vp, sales and marketing, did not confront that reality head-on, she didn’t run away from it either. Noting that her family are “huge” New York Giants fans, she revealed that her sons watch the NFL on Red Zone, the NFL’s ad-free platform with which many sports media executives privately express frustration; and wonder if it has also been a drag on NFL ratings. She reminds her sons, she said, “that the Red Zone doesn’t have commercials and advertising pays for pretty much everything in their lives.” She then assured advertisers that “ESPN is the Red Zone for all of sports.” Which basically means, advertisers messages can follow ESPN content across content and delivery systems. 

STAR POWER Shortly before its presentation began, ESPN announced a 10-hour documentary series in conjunction with Netflix about Michael Jordan and the 1990’s Chicago Bulls team. But, his Airness was not in the house. Instead advertisers were shown a 60-second clip narrated by Jordan and featuring a lot of compelling footage from the Bulls’ halcyon days. Katie Nolan had the misfortune of taking the stage right after “The Last Dance” segment. “It’s me, sorry. Hi…” Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was there, fresh from his appearance the previous day at the Fox upfront presentation; Rodriguez is an MLB analyst for Fox Sports. And he’ll host the show Pivot on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, which will have Rodriguez interviewing athletes who are confronting obstacles in their careers. “You make mistakes, you don’t have to be defined by those mistakes,” said Rodriquez.

Kobe Bryant was there to talk up his ESPN digital series Detail, admitting “it’s a little weird to be here because I always, when I played, called ESPN the Evil Empire. And now here I am.”

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