New York -- ESPN has long been the king of the sports jungle, but president John Skipper made some pachydermal points during the programmer’s upfront presentation to advertisers here Tuesday.
Skipper addressed the elephant in the room – University of Alabama mascot Al the Elephant who visited him on stage – and those outside the Best Buy Theater by noting that “several broadcast companies have decided that there might be something to this 24-hour sports channel thing.” His reference was to NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, which have buttressed their position in the space and Fox Sports 1, which will enter the fray in Aug. 17, perhaps joined by Fox Sports 2.
But Skipper knows ESPN wields an elephant gun in the way of rights and distribution.
"We at ESPN like competition. It makes us better. It makes us sharper," said Skipper, who cited recent carriage renewal deals with the likes of Cox, Charter, Cablevision, AT&T and Google Fiber. He also told tale of ESPN's rights tape encompassing new or expanded pacts with Major League Baseball, and Wimbledon, as well as college circuits the Big 12, ACC, Big East, Mountain West and SEC, and college football's inaugural playoff system.
After the presentation, Skipper again assessed the sports landscape with a host of reporters.
"They are going to be in the business. We don’t expect this to be over and done, but what we do expect is to compete vigorously," Skipper said. "What Fox does have is more live rights. Fox has more to start with, but again, in any comparison between our collection of assets and their collection of assets, we have a significantly broader, and better, portfolio."
That portfolio could soon include all of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. While ESPN holds the cable rights -- some of which it sublicenses to Tennis Channel -- to the Grand Slam event at Flushing Meadow, New York, it is reportedly nearing an exclusive deal that would ace the marquee matches from long-time holder CBS Sports, starting in 2015. "We’re in ongoing, constructive conversations with the U.S. Open; it’s a fabulous product. We were very excited to cover Wimbledon from start to finish," said Skipper. Asked about a time frame for a resolution of a deal with the United States Tennis Association, he replied: "We’re not fans of long negotiations."
At the upfront, the worldwide leader also announced that it would be augmenting its signature news programming, SportsCenter, with a new, 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art digital studio at its Bristol, Conn. headquarters. The studio will showcase some 350 video display units, some as high as 15-feet that will not only aid in the customization of myriad content presentations, but serve to boost the context for advertisers’ messaging as well. It is set to debut in 2014, meaning it will come after the launch of Fox Sports 1’s three-hour Fox Sports Livenightly news show that will air from 11 p.m. to 2 p.m. (ET).
"You saw the SportsCenter set," Skipper said. "I think it is a pretty impressive set, and I look forward to seeing what their sets look like when they roll them out. We want to be hard to compete with."
SportsCenter will also go mobile in the old-fashioned sense with a sponsorable, 'SportCenter on the Scene' bus that will roll to big events throughout the year. The vehicle is equipped with various technologies that will enable the transmission of on-site interviews.
In deference to today’s mobility and branding, the company is converting the top sports app, ScoreCenter, to the SportsCenter app in time for the kickoff of the 2013 football season. It will include such current features as personalized scores from users’ favorite teams and leagues to feeds of latest breaking news, articles, video clips and tweets from ESPN talent. Graphically reflective of the new SportsCenter studio, the app will also drive social media elements on set that will be used on air. At launch, the app will be available for iPhone and Android, with an iPad iteration to follow.
On Aug. 1,ESPN will showcase the top 50 ‘This is SportsCenter’ spots in an hour-long special, which perhaps will include No. 406 in the series that premiered at the upfront: Anchor John Anderson watching golfer Rickie Fowler and his lack of discernment about the various shades of the color orange.
Elsewhere, ESPNFC on Aug. 11 will serve its initial daily highlights-driven soccer studio show in the U.S., airing daily save for Saturday. The program is tentatively slated to run on ESPN2 in the 4 p.m. hour.
As to America's top sport, NFL Insiders, hosted by Suzy Kolber with major contributions from Adam Schefter, Chris Mortenson and Bill Polian, will replace NFL32, staring on Aug. 5.
On the film front, the "30 for 30" franchise will return on Oct. 1,with docs about the Roberto Duran- Sugar Ray Leonard rivalry and tennis legend Jimmy Connors.
Per usual, the event concluded with ESPN president of global customer marketing and sales, Ed Erhardt. This time, he was flanked by a man who knows something about finishing, Mariano Rivera. Noting that Erhardt was going to be "the closer today," the New York Yankees reliever offered him this "good tip...You have to have a short memory. You have to stay focused and most important, you have to pitch fast."