ESPN Takes On BuzzFeed, Funny Or Die, Binge-Watching In Pitch For Upfront Dollars

ESPN has more obvious rivals than ever before, whether they be 21st Century Fox’s Fox Sports 1, NBCUniversal’s NBCSN or Turner’s Bleacher Report. But the sports-media juggernaut is setting its sights on different game.

In a series of promotional efforts aimed at advertisers and media buyers in the weeks leading up to TV’s annual upfront market, the Disney-owned outlet is making its case not against traditional competitors but rather a series of new-media upstarts, emerging behaviors and growing populations whose potential to disrupt the current media industry looms large. ESPN’s ads take pot shots at BuzzFeed and FunnyorDie; explain how the sports-media giant trumps binge-viewing; and suggest advertisers may find more African-Americans and Hispanics watching ESPN programming than that of other media catering directly to those demographics.

“ESPN’s M18-34 digital users spend an average of 122 minutes with us a month,” reads the copy on one ad. “Buzzfeed users spend 14 minutes. #attentionspan.”

“ESPN wins the night 83 times a year. That’s almost three months of binge watching,” reads another.

“ESPN digital reached over 30 million women a month in Q4,” reads a third. “Higher than the reach of iVillage and InStyle combined. “

The ads suggest that ESPN is eager to play up the niches found in its broader audience of sports fans, just as Madison Avenue has ramped up demand for the ability to aim pitches and promotions at narrower strands of audience. Many media companies have begun offering the use of data to help advertisers pinpoint everything from pastry-snackers to first-time car buyers in an effort to lend TV advertising, once aimed at the masses, some of the pinpointing qualities inherent in digital promotion.

The campaign starts as ESPN, like other media outlets, heads to the annual upfront, when TV networks try to sell the bulk of the ad inventory for the coming season. TV networks are believed to be selling into the same headwinds they faced in 2014: more viewers watching their programming in ways that are not counted by traditional metrics; a desire by advertisers to hold money until very close to the time campaigns are set to launch; and new competition for ad dollars from digital-content providers.

In 2014 advertisers committed between $8.17 billion and $8.94 billion for the 2014-15 primetime slate on broadcast, according to Variety estimates, compared with between $8.6 billion and $9.2 billion in 2013. They earmarked $9.6 billion in advance advertising commitments for cable, down about 6% or about $577 million from the $10.2 billion committed the year before, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.

ESPN will get the message out by using digital ad units across trade media specializing in advertising, as well as email promotions sent directly to clients.

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