ESPN Sales Chief Ed Erhardt Wants to Make Sports Even Better

Says advertisers and content producers need to figure out what viewers want next

Instant replay, the First and Ten line, the ubiquitous score box—not necessarily digital disruptions, but technical innovations that drastically changed and improved the way we watch the game. It was true then, and it’s true now: Sports is uniquely positioned to take advantage of technology and the so-called “digital disruption.”

There is no better example of how sports and technology together have driven tremendous disruption and innovation than the Super Bowl. What was once the championship of American football is now a global event where advertising is the content and star, as anticipated as the game itself. With the rise of digital and social activity around the advertising, the value of the creative continues to multiply—and $4 million a spot is considered an investment well spent.

Today, we don’t have to be in the same arena—or even the same room—to experience the game together. Sports has led the way with new platforms and social media, which has transformed what was once a TV-only event to a multiscreen, interactive, hyper-social experience. It’s the game around the game.

At ESPN, disruption has always offered an opportunity to innovate—and we’ve tried to disrupt ourselves first. We’ve made many bets that have worked, and a few that have not—but regardless of the outcome, the lessons learned and knowledge gained only helped bolster and inform our next innovation. For instance, ESPN’s leadership in mobile might not be what it is today if we had not had the experience of launching our own handset in 2005.

From fantasy to digital streaming to apps like ScoreCenter and WatchESPN, the digital disruption has not only made sports more enjoyable, it has also made sports more valuable to advertisers and content creators. And most importantly, it has made for better sports fans. Context and platform matter, and technology helps facilitate both.

There is power in long-form storytelling. There is power in the 30-second spot. And the world moving forward is going to be thinking in terms of six-, eight-, 10- and 15-second spots—and we need to embrace it.

As we move to a digital world where the length of commercial messages should increasingly match the length and context of video consumed, finding that balance that matches the right creative with the right content on the right platform is the trifecta. When it works, it works better than ever. The onus is on us now to get it to a place where it works well, more consistently.

To do that, we must continue to push for accurate measurement while developing concise and contextually relevant messages. The ubiquity of video will continue to drive value back to advertising across multiple screens. Brands will matter more than ever.

It’s up to the advertisers and content creators to figure out where audiences are going next to connect. At ESPN, we see the importance of data being less about the technology and more about the application. When looking over the horizon, smart data paired with passionate brands and good, contextually relevant creative will win.

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