Advertisers covet ESPY Awards' male demo and cable cachet

Gearing up for its 11th annual kudofest, the ESPY Awards are certainly on the radar of “SportsCenter” viewers.

But the question of whether it’s breaking through to the casual, non-sports viewer remains to be seen.

Viewed in 1.8 million homes last year – ranking far behind cable’s top-rated awards show, the MTV Music Awards, which routinely draws more than 5 million households — the ESPN telecast is a two-hour awards program honoring everything from the year’s best sports moment to the best sports movie.

While not appealing to an audience broader than sports fans, the awards do have implications in the area of sports marketing, industry officials say.

“These are highly coveted by the athletes,” says Carlos Fleming, an IMG client manger who represents Venus and Sarena Williams, among other top athletes. “It offers them credibility. The ESPYs aren’t like other awards shows because it’s not diluted. This is the only one of its kind, and people in the (sports marketing industry ) pay attention.

Meanwhile, Bob Flood, executive VP, national electronic media for ad buying firm Optimedia Intl., adds that as TV’s only sports awards show, it’s also the only kudocast to draw a primarily male audience – a desirable asset for media buyers.

The event impresses advertisers with its broad collection of athletes and entertainment celebs, ESPN officials say. It also provides the cabler with a solid brand extension. “There are a lot of things that go into the ESPYs’ value beyond dollars and cents,” says Ron Semiao, who took charge of the ESPYs last year when he was upped to ESPN’s senior VP of original entertainment.

Prior to Semiao taking the helm, critics accused the ESPYs of trying too hard to be funny and losing their focus on sports.Semiao shook things up, moving the show from the February sweepsto July, where the sports calendar is barren except for baseball. He also tightened the program’s pace while toning the presenters’ dialogue to be more reverent towards the athletes and their achievements.

This year’s telecast, set for Wednesday at the Kodak Theatre and hosted by comedian Jamie Foxx — who has co-starred in sports-based pics “Any Given Sunday,” “Ali” and “The Great White Hype” — will again be noticeably different. The event is ditching the black-tie attire in favor of a hipper, more casual look.

Semiao also took steps to get sports fans more involved in the voting process. Now, 17 of the 33 ESPYs are voted on by the fans. The 16 others, those that don’t pertain to a specific sport, will continue to be voted on by the ESPY Academy, a panel of top sports celebs and journalists.

With 5 million votes already submitted through the cabler’s Web site, as well as through the ESPN Zone restaurant chain, the network is consideringturning the entire voting process over to the fans next year.

“Sports awards are all about debate and opinion, and fans don’t want to be dictated to,” Semiao explains.

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