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ESPN Puts Muscle Into Pregame

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On Sunday afternoons in the fall, football belongs to the broadcast networks. ESPN does not air games until the evening, yet its morning pregame show is gaining viewers. To continue that trend, the Disney cable network has a new "coach" and a new ad campaign.

Sunday NFL Countdown averaged a 2.2 rating last year, up 10 percent from 2002, according to AC Nielsen. Among men 18-34, the jump was 17 percent. (Fox's and CBS's pregame shows averaged 3.5 and 2.7 ratings, respectively.) To keep its momentum going, ESPN breaks an ad campaign Aug. 30 to convince sports fans that its on-air talent is part of "the hardest-working pregame show in football," as the voiceover declares.

Independent Wieden + Kennedy in New York created five 30-second spots and five 15-second variations, all starring actor Robert Loggia as the "coach" of the broadcast-team members, who sit at desks on a practice field in the midday sun. Loggia, who played an aging mobster on HBO's The Sopranos last season, uses a whistle, a blackboard and his booming, gravelly voice to reinforce the team's work ethic. He instructs them on everything from segues to the three "E's" of the show: "entertain, enlighten and en-sighful."

TV, radio and print ads will run only on ESPN-branded properties such as ESPN and its sister cable networks, ESPN Radio and ESPN The Magazine. There will also be outdoor ads.

The new season of Sunday NFL Countdown begins Sept. 12 at 11 a.m.