Sports cabler touts advantages over competitors at upfront

Looking to build on the momentum for its docu division, ESPN will present a second edition of films in its “30 for 30″ documentary showcase in October.

Among the titles ESPN unveiled Tuesday ayem at its Gotham upfront are “Benji,” about Chicago high school basketball phenom Ben Wilson; “Broke,” a look at what happens when athletes make bad financial investments; and “Bo Knows,” a look at former football and baseball player Bo Jackson.

“We’re proud to have created a brand that has become synonymous with quality sports storytelling, and we see value in bringing back a second collection of 30 films,” said ESPN Films veep Connor Schell.

In front of a packed crowd that included Disney topper Bob Iger, Disney-ABC TV Group prexy Anne Sweeney and former ESPN boss George Bodenheimer, ESPN president John Skipper said the cabler “has never been in a stronger place than it is today.”

In an age in which many viewers watch programs days or weeks after their initial telecast, advertisers are fans of ESPN because of the large amounts of live programming that the net offers. ESPN has rights deals with most major pro and college sports except the NHL, which is currently in a long-term deal at NBC.

Last year ESPN took over the rights from NBC on Wimbledon, and the prestigious U.K. tournament is set to begin next month. Skipper wasn’t shy about saying that he doesn’t see the NBC Sports Network (the erstwhile Versus cabler) as much of a threat.

“We’ve been doing this for 32 years, and there is a little too much respect paid to their brand name,” Skipper said. “They don’t look like we look. We have more viewers in an average minute on ESPN mobile then they have on all of NBC Sports Network.”

The next pressing live-rights deal that ESPN must negotiate is for Major League Baseball. While the channel has the current and 2013 seasons; the 2014 season and beyond are up for grabs. Skipper said it was highly likely the cabler would stick with MLB.

“We want to extend our relationship,” Skipper said. “My preference would be to get it done today, but in 30-60 days I hope we can (finalize a deal).”

Skipper also commented on recent reports that several cable and satellite operators have had discussions about putting ESPN and other sports networks on a separate tier. Because of its stranglehold on sports packages, ESPN receives subscriber fees at the top of the market, a whopping $4-$5 per subscriber that makes it the crown jewel of Disney’s TV holdings.

Because sports programming helps drive up the price of cable bills, there has been talk of giving customers the option of excluding ESPN from their basic programming package.

Skipper dismissed the idea, saying that with a subscriber base of 120 million, there are very few subs who aren’t watching the network.

“That people say they don’t watch is overrated,” declared Skipper, who added the cabler recently cut new deals with Time Warner and Comcast. “Everyone has a fourth cousin who is watching. We’re the No. 1 network in all adults 18-49 and men 18-49. To say ESPN is not mass media is just wrong.”

He said it was “highly unlikely in any predictable future” that ESPN would be a separate paying tier. “Most people believe it’s a good value.”

On ESPN’s personnel front, “SportsNation” co-host Michele Beadle is leaving the network to join NBC, where she will work on the upcoming London Olympics and entertainment newsmag “Access Hollywood.” Reporter Erin Andrews is currently in contract talks with ESPN.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more