ESPN Fields In-House Creative Unit

Teeing off what promises to be a fast-moving upfront marketplace, ESPN has formed an in-house creative unit that will develop custom branded spots for clients.

Dubbed “CreativeWorks,” the new initiative will generate sports-themed spots for linear TV, digital, mobile and print. First to the plate is T-Mobile, which on June 8 will bow a pair of CreativeWorks-produced spots in support of its “$5 Add a Line” campaign. Featuring Hall of Famers Bill Walton and Rick Barry, the first of the two spots will debut during Game 3 of the NBA Finals, on ABC, while the second ad tips off in Game 4 on June 10.

The CreativeWorks spots were produced in conjunction with T-Mobile agency partners Publicis and Optimedia.

The formation of the new creative unit systematizes a process that began several years ago. “We’ve been providing creative services for a while, but lately demand has increased,” said Sean Hanrahan, ESPN’s senior vp of marketing solutions. “In addition, recent research confirmed that what we are producing really resonates with our fans, so we decided it was time to structure our creative resources in a bigger, more formalized way.”

The research to which Hanrahan referred was conducted by Disney Ad Lab. Examining the effectiveness of a previous ESPN campaign co-developed with Toshiba, the study found that custom creative helped boost recall by 121 percent.

Currently in active discussions with clients, the CreativeWorks team will announce future collaborations at a later date.

The CreativeWorks effort is the latest bid by a network to help steer client messaging. In April, USA Network began pitching media agencies on Character Brandworks, an in-house creative agency designed to help clients identify the “face” of their brands.

“CreativeWorks is rooted in our special relationship with fans,” said Ed Erhardt, president, ESPN customer marketing and sales. “No one knows our fans better than we do, and we can leverage that knowledge to help our clients deliver their brand message to our audience in the most effective way.”

ESPN presented its most content-rich upfront pitch in memory, unveiling its initial schedule for the launch of its 3D channel (which coincides with the net’s comprehensive coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup), and detailing plans for the Year of the Quarterback, a 12-month examination of sport’s most celebrated job title.

ESPN 3D takes the pitch on Friday, June 11, as host nation South Africa kicks off the quest for the Cup with the opening match with Group A rival Mexico. Thus far, Bristol plans to carry 25 of the 64 Cup matches on its 3D simulcast, including the Slovenia-USA tussle (June 18) and Portugal-Brazil (June 25). Defending champs Italy will take their signature flopping/diving theatrics into the third dimension on June 24, when Forza Azzurri takes on Slovakia in a Group F showdown.

All 64 World Cup matches will air live and in hi-def on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, and more than 50 matches will be televised live in Portuguese on ESPN Deportes.

Previously, ESPN announced the new 3D service would carry the 2011 BCS National Championship game, as well as select NBA, X Games and college football and basketball telecasts. The channel has lined up distribution on Comcast systems and with satellite-TV provider DirecTV.

Also in the works is the aforementioned Year of the Quarterback, a multipart series that will provide an in-depth exploration into both the quotidian and near-mythical properties of the position. Featuring commentary and analysis from former QBs and ESPN analysts Steve Young and Ron Jaworski, the YoQB effort will seed content across TV and digital platforms, as well as ESPN The Magazine.      

The timing of the Year of the Quarterback initiative is fortuitous, as many college football obsessives are already talking about possible comparisons between the class of ‘11 and the legendary YoQB ‘83. That year, six signal-callers were drafted in round one, including John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.

Potential first-rounders from the class of ‘11 include Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Florida State’s Christian Ponder and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett.

Spin-off net ESPNU will also bow a signature initiative in the new nightly program U:Nite. Designed to celebrate the intersection of sports and pop culture, the show will focus on additive elements like gaming, tech and music. The studio show will throw to remotes and stand-ups from college campuses and big games/events.

As reported by Mediaweek yesterday, ESPN also announced a new digital premium called the “Absolute A position,” an ad offering on that combines a pre-roll video ad with a high-impact, homepage-takeover-styled display ad.