ESPN Is Measuring How Many People Tune In at Bars, Gyms and Even Maternity Wards

Downplays subscriber losses during theatrical upfront

For the second consecutive day, Hamilton made it's way into the opening of an upfront.

Broadway stars Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. bookended ESPN's upfront this morning from The Minskoff Theater—home to another Broadway mainstay in The Lion King—with special performances centered around sports. But for ESPN, which finds itself in the unfamiliar position of actually having to sell itself to the ad buyers in the crowd, it was more than shamelessly trying to appeal to the New Yorkers in the seats. After all theater, like sports, can really only be viewed one way: live.

"When we watch a great theatrical performance, we exist in a spellbinding moment," said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN's Global Sales & Marketing. "Time to challenge, rethink and remarket how we think, how we measure and how we engage our customers." Later in the show, ESPN aired a montage of fans' real-time reactions to some of the most exciting sports endings during the past year.

And despite a year that saw subscribers increasingly cut the cord, and high profile talent head for the exits, ESPN president John Skipper told a group of reporters following the upfront that the self-styled Worldwide Leader remains bullish on itself. "We think we still have a little swagger."

"Hamilton" Stars Open ESPN Upfront from ESPNFrontRow on Vimeo.

After Disney missed its earnings estimates last quarter despite the massive box office haul for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, ESPN has found itself in the crosshairs due to its subscriber and ad revenue losses, though Skipper found a way to put a more positive spin on it, mentioning how it was still Disney's 11th consecutive quarter of double-digit earnings.

"I'll be happy to be in the crosshairs of that," he said. "We're quite encouraged with many of the conversations we're having with new distributors." Skipper added ESPN is getting traction with streaming services like Sony and Dish's SlingTV; ESPN also recently settled its lawsuit with Verizon over its own "skinny bundle." He said he doesn't think ESPN is in a position yet to launch its own over-the-top service, however.

One of the things dragging ESPN down is the sagging performance of its flagship show SportsCenter, which has seen its ratings fall over the past year. "Any narrative that SportsCenter does not remain central to the sports fans' experience is inaccurate," said Skipper, though he admitted that the show was due for a slight retooling. "We have to make every hour distinct. It was sort of on all the time and we didn't differentiate." Earlier this year, ESPN began shaking up the formats in certain hours to better emphasize the hosts.

Measuring out-of-home viewing

While its live sports ratings remain strong, ESPN is looking to goose those even further by adding out-of-home viewing to the metrics it presents to advertisers. ESPN has been measuring those who view games at bars, gyms, restaurants—even maternity wards—since September. While Nielsen is expected to bake in these numbers into its planned Total Audience Measurement product, which is tentatively scheduled to roll out in 2017 (though it was supposed to be ready for upfront season), Skipper said ESPN is already adding these additional viewers into its sales numbers. "On many of our shows they will add double digit increments to our audience," said Skipper.

For example, SportsCenter saw an average lift of 5.8 percent; Monday Night Football rose 6.3 percent when out of home viewing was factored in, while NBA games increased by 9.6 percent. Not surprisingly, bigger events saw greater out-of-home viewing levels: ESPN's NFL wildcard game increased by 17 percent, while the College Football Playoff semifinals that aired on New Year's Eve saw a 11.1 percent out-of-home lift.

The amount ESPN is paying for those rights, however, continues to climb, and when the NBA's new deal kicks in this summer, ESPN will be pay triple the amount of its current deal. That has led to budget slashing across the company, with the most visible changes being the mass exodus of high profile talent like Mike Tirico, Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless. "I did not see any lack of talent on our stage today," quipped Skipper. "We're highly focused on new and diverse voices."

Speaking of Tirico, who headed for NBC earlier this month, his replacement in the Monday Night Football booth Sean McDonough made a strong first impression to ad buyers in the crowd. After coming out on stage and saying he had "hair envy" for Bryce Harper (one of the many sports stars that ESPN paraded out on stage), he got in a nice jab at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, another early theme of Upfront week. While going through the Monday Night Football slate, McDonough remarked about the Nov. 21 game between the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders that will be played in Mexico City, "Fortunately, there won't be any ginormous walls we'll have to climb."

Erhardt also spoke with reporters after the upfront about the out-of-home measurement, understanding its going to be a tough sell for advertisers wary of how many people actually pay attention to ads played at loud sports bars. "We're going to have, I'm sure, spirited discussions about the value of that audience," he said. "I'll put that live valuable impression up against a disruptive C3 or C7 rating all day long."

New ad products and programs

ESPN also introduced a new ad product called Live Connect, which considers the emotional state of fans to determine which ads will resonate best in the moment; Erhardt added that it's already resulted in a 40 to 50 percent increase in open rates for display ads on digital alone.

ESPN used its presentation to tout a few other programming initiatives including its just-launched race, culture and sports site, The Undefeated; its upcoming 30 for 30 slate which includes a Judd Apatow-directed film about former New York Mets Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden, as well as its upcoming five-part OJ Simpson film, Made in America.

But the best part of ESPN's upfront is always Kenny Mayne's time on the stage, which did not disappoint. After mentioning how the attendees were "binge-watching, commercial-skipping bastards," and making fun of Snapchat, he saved his best line for ESPN's push to measure out-of-home viewing:

"Nobody ever says, 'Hey lets go to a sports bar and watch a Ken Burns documentary.'"