ESPN: 800-Pound Gorillas In The Upfront Mist

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There were several of the beasts hovering in the house during the worldwide leader’s upfront presentation to media buyers in Manhattan on Tuesday morning.

I’m not necessarily talking about Those Guys Have All The Fun because the oral tell-all about the boys and girls of Bristol only weighs in at 784 pages. The tome, from Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, certainly wasn’t mentioned on stage at the Best Buy Theater, although ESPN executive vice president of content John Skipper addressed some reporters’ questions about its upcoming release, after the event.

In front of the ad execs, Skipper and that prototypical male shopper in the form of All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers expressed confidence that the gold (or is green?) standard of sports leagues ultimately wouldn’t kick its $9 billion pigskin away from the players. Still like a simian in shoulder pads, the NFL lockout looms large over NFL rights-holders and the annual Madison Avenue bazaar.

Following the upfront, Skipper was frank in his response to press queries about potential substitutions for Monday NightFootball: nothing can replace ESPN and cable’s all-time highest-rated show.

Moreover to hear ESPN president of customer marketing and sales Ed Erdhardt and Skipper tell, the sports giant won’t even try to push college football — its biggest hedge against the loss of the pro game — into Sunday afternoon or Monday night windows. For his part, Erhardt said after the presentation that although some schools might consider it, it would be difficult to execute at the last minute. Skipper felt that it would not only be tough to accomplish, but inappropriate for ticket-holders, especially because ESPN would have to welcome back the NFL as soon as there was a labor resolution.

In the meantime, Erhardt said ESPN wasn’t entertaining any contingencies with its pro football inventory. “It’s business as usual. The marketplace agrees the best option is to plan to be in the NFL.”

As for the student athletes, Erhardt said ESPN has “seen college football get a heightened amount of interest.” And why not, the upfront pitch — which also talked up the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Euro 2012 and other soccer fare; a new afternoon schedule for ESPN2; its expanding digital, mobile and app offerings; a fresh set of documentaries under the ESPN Films banner; and NASCAR NonStop, a split-screen advertising innovation — trumpeted the college game. Indeed, teammates ESPN and ABC have some good ones on tap for the 2011 season: LSU-Oregon, Boise State-Georgia, Ohio State-Miami, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Oklahoma-Texas and, in the first night game at “The Big House,” Notre Dame-Michigan.

Skipper also discussed another large primate — the IOC sub-species native to Lausanne — after the upfront.

He said ESPN will be an aggressive bidder for the rights to the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, respectively. “Our level of interest is very high,” he said. Skipper thought it difficult to handicap the bidding on June 6-7 in Switzerland, given that Comcast’s NBC Sports Group, the incumbent under The Rings King, Dick Ebersol, and Fox Sports, are both expected to make strong plays of their own.

He noted that the giant sports programmer will have a strong presentation, which is currently being worked on. In keeping with a central message of the upfront — the interest and value of live sports to a growing number of American men and women — Skipper reiterated his past stand: If ESPN gains the Games, they will air live, irrespective of the time Stateside. With its variety of assets — ESPN, ESPN2, broadband service ESPN3.com, ESPNU, ESPNews and ABC, and other platforms — the company could bridge time zones. However, that wouldn’t preclude it from packaging primetime encores with different story-telling on the broadcast network.

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