Showcasing Its Must-See Programming, ESPN Wants Advertisers to Trust It Despite Recent Layoffs

ESPN presented the 'upfront truth'

Mike Greenberg, whose new show on ESPN will debut in the new year, interviewed tennis legend Serena Williams onstage during ESPN's upfront event. Allen Kee / ESPN Images
Headshot of Sami Main

Between an onstage jazz band, intimate stage sets built to look like living rooms and bars, and the Angel of Advertising, ESPN went into today’s upfront presentation wanting to show ad partners its sense of collaboration and honesty.

ESPN recently had a round of layoffs, with about 100 staffers getting cut. John Skipper, president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney and ESPN Media Networks, assured advertisers at the presentation in New York that those decisions were a response to changes in the industry and came from a “position of strength.”

“Your content, brand and life matter,” he said, “and that’s the upfront truth.”

According to Skipper, ESPN’s prime-time viewership was up by 15 percent in the first quarter of the year, and he prided ESPN for being on skinny cable bundles like Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Hulu and YouTube TV.

Overall, the presentation focused on the different types of content ESPN creates and the fan emotions it can measure. According to Vikram Somaya, svp, global data officer and ad platforms for ESPN, the company’s sports analytics and fan data can be a powerful tool for advertisers.

Brands like Coors Light and Dick’s Sporting Goods have used emotions to successfully access fans during their game-viewing experience. Thanks to audience surveys and reported data, ESPN was able to tell Coors Light that their viewers respond best to ads that feature the emotion “anticipation,” and the company saw a 16 percent brand consideration lift. Dick’s Sporting Goods saw a 7 percent increase in retail sales when their ads featured “triumph.”

In partnership with Nielsen, ESPN can provide advertisers total live audience numbers with set top, streaming and out-of-home viewership. The system can track every impression on every screen in the same 24-hour span. ESPN’s evp, global ad revenue and sales operations Eric Johnson pointed out the simplicity of having one total number of viewers to deal with. The focus on such impressions is to give advertising partners the viewable—because it’s live television—content ESPN offers audiences. The system works on the entire ESPN platform, which executives argue is a simpler process than dealing with the network’s separate divisions individually.

“At ESPN, we have a confidence that is born from trust,” said Ed Erhardt, president of global sales and marketing for ESPN. “We can put brands wherever and whenever people access and engage with ESPN. We’re focused on being open, transparent and collaborative.”

He added: “We’re facing a fundamental reset in the industry. It’s time for us and you to reconsider, recalibrate and reallocate.”

The rest of the event featured ESPN’s hosts and personalities presenting their shows and talking sports. Mike Greenberg interviewed Serena Williams onstage, and later in the show, Kenny Mayne flew in from the rafters as the Angel of Advertising to give the audience some straight talk.

Kenny Mayne, SportsCenter anchor, as the Angel of Advertising.
Allen Kee / ESPN Images

“We’ll go along with the premise that people buy things based on advertising if you guys believe people still watch regular TV,” Mayne said.

Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN’s website, highlighted some of the storytelling ESPN is now known for, including the 30 for 30 franchise and the recent E:60 spotlight on the Syrian soccer team.

Hosts Marly Rivera and Jorge Sedano of Nación ESPN showed advertisers how they incorporate Spanish and English into their broadcasts and with advertisers like Toyota.

“We try to recreate the atmosphere when you’re at your abuelita’s house on Christmas watching football,” said Sedano.

Ed Erhardt puts ESPN in the context of the Walt Disney Company portfolio.
Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

ESPN released details about a slew of new programs or additions to existing franchises concurrent with the upfront presentation. Viewers can expect new shows and lineups from ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Radio from hosts like Greenberg, Bomani Jones, Pable Torre, Mike Golic, Trey Wingo, Laura Rutledge and Maria Taylor.

@samimain Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.