ESPN Uses Client Testimonials in Its Upfront

Diageo, Subway, Macy's

There’s an uncommonly large crowd on hand for this taping of SportsCenter, as some 2,000 observers are huddled around as anchor Hannah Storm winds down the 9:30 a.m. segment. Throwing to a taped interview with what appears to be a retired Ivy League linebacker, Storm introduces her virtual guest as Peter McDonough, the chief marketing and innovation officer at Diageo North America.

This particular installment of SportsCenter isn’t being broadcast beyond the confines of New York’s Best Buy Theater, and McDonough hasn’t suited up to chat about Penn’s third conference title in four seasons. (For one thing, he’s a Cornell man.) Instead, as part of ESPN’s 2012 upfront presentation, he’s agreed to offer a testimonial on how the network’s sales team has delivered significant results for Diageo over the last several months.

As part of a yearlong deal, the liquor distributor signed on as a presenting sponsor of the ESPN series Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn. The “Diageo Happy Hour” execution put the company out in front of legions of younger male viewers while throwing a spotlight on its Guinness Black Lager brand. But the sponsorship didn’t end there.

“What was really exciting was how it would satisfy a second objective we had, which was reaching the multicultural consumer,” McDonough said, adding that a similar strategy was used to pitch Captain Morgan Rum to Hispanic viewers of ESPN Deportes. “I couldn’t be more excited about this partnership.”

This marks the third year in which ESPN will thread client testimonials into the fabric of its upfront presentation. Previous participants included Gatorade, Taco Bell and Goodyear. The sports giant will have three more brands in the wings (Macy’s, Cheez-It and Subway) when it unveils its 2013-14 slate on Tuesday, May 14.

A nod to the mutual trust between the network and its clients, no money changes hands when ESPN books its testimonials. “We didn’t want to simply go up there and remind everyone that we delivered their GRPs,” said Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s president of global customer marketing and sales. “The idea was to identify senior clients who were willing to talk about how the relationship they have with ESPN was driving their sales and business goals. I mean, isn’t that why we’re all here?”

As a top 10 sports investor—per Nielsen, Subway in 2012 spent $114.3 million on TV sports programming—CMO Tony Pace is the kind of guy you want to have up there extolling the virtues of your sales team.

“We’ve been working with ESPN for a long time, and this is just a great way to thank them for their good work,” Pace said. “Not only does this present an opportunity to talk about some of the things we do with ESPN that are unique to our brand, but we’re also getting our message out beyond the venue. Even though this is ESPN’s show, an awful lot of other media outlets will hear about it.”

Pace is particularly enthused about Subway’s association with ESPN personality Bill Simmons. A longtime supporter of Simmons’ podcast, Subway was a founding sponsor of his sports/pop culture site,

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