During its May 15 presentation to advertisers, ESPN Inc. touted its new president, Jimmy Pitaro, and its on-air talent, including the irrepressible anchor and faux pitchman extraordinaire Kenny Mayne, as it played through its mix of sports programming and audience advantages.
The upfront was the first under Pitaro, who succeeded John Skipper after he abruptly resigned in December 2017. The company has also streamlined and reorganized its ad sales efforts, giving its ad sales personnel the ability to sell across ABC (US), ESPN (US), other Walt Disney Co.-owned cable networks and properties. Indeed, the "Disney difference" was spotlighted in a sizzle reel that cut across broadcast, cable, movie and theme park assets.
Pitaro proclaimed his fandom to the crowd of media buyers and pointed to ESPN's leadership position.
"Before I took the job here, I was already a lifelong fan," Pitaro said. "I had a personal relationship with this company for many years. No one has our unique combination of strengths." He continued by saying, "ESPN is first, no matter how you measure it, but we're not resting on our laurels. We're at the beginning of the most exciting chapter in our story," a reference to the recently enhanced app that houses ESPN+, Disney's initial dive into the direct-to-consumer realm in the U.S.
From a programming perspective, the upfront news was hoops-heavy. Tipping off in October, ESPN Films will present a mosaic of more than 60 shorts, telling the story of the sport from NBA, collegiate, women's, international and Olympics perspectives. "Basketball: A Love Story" will look at the game from the lens of its history, relative to race, media, art, business, style and language. All told, some 170 notables will be featured. LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Bill Russell, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, George "Ice" Gervin and Diana Taurasi were among those detected on the sizzle reel.
Premiering next year, "The Last Dance" is a 10-part documentary from ESPN Films and Netflix Inc. Produced by Mandalay Sports Media LLC in association with NBA Entertainment Inc. and Jump.DC, "The Last Dance" chronicles the 1997 to 1998 season, the last of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' six championships. Jordan and his teammates and other hoops notables will participate.
After the event, ESPN executives said announcements about the windowing of the docuseries will be made at a later juncture.
The upfront also served as showcase for the new "Monday Night Football" booth crew of Joe Tessitore, recently retired Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, who will be the network's first on-field analyst, and reporter Lisa Salters.
The new "Sunday Night Baseball" team of Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez, also appeared, giving the former slugger a chance to connect "Pivot with Alex" to the assembled media buyers at the Minskoff Theatre, home of the Broadway version of Disney's "The Lion King."
The four-part special will air on ESPN and ESPN Deportes (US) during MLB's regular season, with each installment featuring in-depth, one-on-one interviews with current and former athletes who are navigating obstacles in their lives and careers.
Ed Erhardt, president of global sales and marketing at ESPN, in his traditional role of "upfront closer," spoke to the addition of how streaming and out-of-home viewing has added a 12% lift to ESPN audience. He said that the sports programmer was the only network to grow its viewership overall last year and with both genders. He also emphasized audience advances with the NBA on both ESPN and ABC.
"We have a live audience that is the most elusive and valuable in all of media, at scale," he said.
Earlier in the presentation, Wendell Scott, senior vice president of sales and marketing at ESPN, said that while others are touting C3, C7 and even C35, ESPN prefers "C5" — as in the vast majority of its watchers have seen the content and commercials within five minutes of airtime.
On the digital and social fronts, Erhardt said ESPN is the leader of the pack, trotting out stats indicating 79% growth in video starts, a 12% rise in social viewing and a 30% jump in live streaming.
Taking a swing at other networks that have been showcasing their reduced ad loads, Erhardt said ESPN has always been the least cluttered network in cable.
Scott had already reminded media buyers that they have been hearing a lot about reduction advertising in prime time at the other upfronts, a problem hoping to be remedied by those who created it in the first place.
Erhardt concluded matters in this way: "There is simply no room for second place, and with ESPN, you can be first."