SportsNewser: ESPN Betting Big On SportsCenter, As Fox Sports 1 Looms

By Alex Weprin Comment

Sports media juggernaut ESPN held its upfront presentation in New York City this morning. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Soccer star Landon Donovan joined executives in the Best Buy Theater to pitch advertisers on spending big bucks with the Disney-owned company.

ESPN president John Skipper opened up the show by talking about “the elephant in the room” as the elephant mascot for the University of Alabama walked behind him.

“Several broadcast companies have decided–in the early 2010s–that there might be something to this whole national sports network thing,” Skipper quipped, referencing the NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network and the upcoming Fox Sports 1. After the event, Skipper told a group of reporters that while he embraces the competition, he thinks ESPN is still in driver’s seat.

“They are going to be in the business, we don’t expect this to be over and done, but what we do expect is to compete vigorously,” Skipper said. “What Fox does have is more live rights. Fox has more to start with, but again, in any comparison between our collection of assets and their collection of assets, we have a significantly broader, and better, portfolio.”

ESPN’s plan to stay ahead of the competition is extending to its signature sports news program  “SportsCenter.” The channel is spending millions of dollars to build an enormous 10,000 square foot studio in its Bristol, CT headquarters (see photo right).

“You saw the ‘SportsCenter’ set, you don’t think we don’t sit around and go, ‘we are going to go and make our most important show bigger and better and let them chase us.’” Skipper said. “I think it is a pretty impressive set, and I look forward to seeing what their sets look like when they roll them out. We want to be hard to compete with. ”

The set will be digital, with enormous screens (some as tall as 15 feet) that can be customized for seemingly any purpose. As an example they showed the “Cold Hard Facts” segment sponsored by Coors Light. As the anchor introduced the segment, virtual snow fell around him, and a frost built up around the screen behind him. The new set will open for production in 2014.

Skipper also addressed the controversial comments made by reporter Chris Broussard following Jason Collins’ coming out in Sports Illustrated. Skipper said “we did great, other than we made one mistake,” in reference to Broussard.

“There was a collective responsibility there, Chris Broussard’s job was to talk about the news of the league and how the league was representing it. Through a series of events he made personal comments, and that was a mistake,” Skipper said. “We don’t quarrel with his right to have any personal point of view, although we do assert as a company that we have a tolerant point of view, we are a diverse company and that does not represent what our company thinks.”

ESPN is adding a daily soccer studio show “ESPNFC” come August on ESPN2, as well as a new NFL show called “NFL Insiders.” New “30 for 30” films will return October 1.

And as for the report in March that former ESPN and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann is eyeing a comeback at the channel, Skipper says he has “not had any more conversations” with Olbermann since that time.