ESPN Laughs It Up

Seth Meyers delivers the punch lines

Seth Meyers on Tuesday made his second upfront appearance in as many days, taking the stage at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square to lend a comic touch to ESPN’s presentation.

The head writer of Saturday Night Live and anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” segment, Meyers followed his time on the NBC dais with a few bits for his part-time employer. (The comedian first hosted the ESPY Awards in 2010.)

Lifting a bit from last summer’s ESPYs gig, Meyers cracked that ESPN “is where sports and entertainment come together. It’s like a Kardashian sister’s bedroom.”

The Red Sox fanatic also got a big laugh when he begged his audience to keep his latest upfront gig a secret from his bosses at 30 Rock. “Don’t tell the NBC brass I’m here,” he said, before adding, “I can’t believe ESPN even has an upfront. I thought they just said, ‘Hey, Nike, Gatorade? You good this year?’”

Meyers wasn’t the only one to make with the funny. ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne did a fine job of playing the Ugly American abroad in a clip from his upcoming refresh of an old ABC standby. The six-part digital series, Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports, bows in the fall; in each installment, the 17-year ESPN veteran takes to the road as “an ambassador of American sport.”

If the clip is any indication, Mayne is most in his element when he’s out of his element. His bemused deadpan takes in all the seeming absurdities of British sport: the cricket, the road bowling, the “football”—it’s soccer, you dummies!—while reminding us that the very nature of sport is inherently strange.

None of which is to say that the entire event was a yuck fest. ESPN execs gamely addressed the white elephant in the room, saying they have a contingency plan in place should the NFL lockout put the kibosh on some or (knock wood) all of the 2011-12 campaign. (Last week, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger downplayed the potential impact of an NFL shutdown, saying that ESPN’s rights to air nearly 300 NCAA football games gives it a horde of contextually relevant replacement programming.)

One programming initiative that had buyers buzzing is the new Tuesday night doc series, ESPN Films. Designed to build on the success of the tremendous 30 for 30 docs, the new round of films bows in October.

Among the initial subjects are Bo Jackson, the professional football and baseball star who in the late 1980s became a one-man marketing juggernaut; Charismatic, the colt who won the 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, only to shatter his leg in the final furlong of his chase for the Triple Crown at Belmont Park; and Chuck Wepner, the palooka nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975 and inspired the movie Rocky.

Given the inherent mercantile slant of every upfront show, ESPN didn’t shy away from the hard sell. The network unveiled a number of new advertising gimmicks, including a split-screen opportunity that will be available during its fall Nascar coverage. Rather than cut away from the action, the “Nascar Nonstop” feature will allow marketers to buy time on the left side of the screen while the race continues in real time on the right.

ESPN will also begin running commercial messages on its WatchESPN app, which streams live ESPN content to tablets and other portable devices. And there’s a lot of eyeballs out there to snag. According to Sean Bratches, the network's executive vice president of sales and marketing, each day some 2.2 million people use an ESPN app.

While sports fans have their eyes trained on their iPads, they're still consuming a massive amount of linear TV. As revealed during the upfront pitch, TV sports ratings are up 21 percent since 2006, while overall TV ratings have grown just 6 percent in that same period.