ESPN gets in the ring

Thursday boxing match promos net

Among the smart TVs, digital cameras and intelligent appliances crowded into Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center at CES, one booth doesn’t seem to fit in. Instead of OLED flatscreens, it has a boxing ring. For tablets and smartphones, substitute grandstands.

ESPN 3D’s booth is what you’d expect from the all-sports network — the popular book about them is, after all, called “Those Guys Have All the Fun.” But ESPN’s presence at CES is unusual for a network with no hardware to sell.

“I stood here with a retailer from San Antonio, Texas, who said ‘I want to do this in my store,'” Bryan Burns, VP of strategic business planning for ESPN, told Variety while sitting sat beside the booth’s putting green. “I don’t think people associate us with having relationships with retailers, but we do. If we don’t do a good job showing the public what we have, the public doesn’t buy it. So coming here to CES is not just a way for us to talk to manufacturers but a chance for us to talk to retailers of the biggest order and the smallest order as well.”

ESPN is no stranger to CES. Disney’s sports broadcasting empire threw the switch to launch ESPN 2 HD at CES, and had a booth for ESPN HD when HD was new and needed promotion.

On Monday night, ESPN 3D put its BCS Championship Game telecast onto a theater screen inside the former Las Vegas Hilton. Today at 2 p.m. it will broadcast “Sports Nation” in 3D from its CES booth, with a magician on hand to cut one of the hosts into three pieces (as its own comic riff on 3D). There will be a fully sanctioned boxing match in that ring Thursday at 1:30 p.m., part of the “Friday Night Fights” series, despite the Thursday date.

“Last summer, we were (asking) what we could here do to ‘go big,'” Burns said, “and someone said ‘It’s Vegas. Boxing!’ and we all started laughing.” But then ESPN execs realized maybe they could pull it off. The key: The 3D production truck will be moved to the Hard Rock for the regular “Friday Night Fights” telecast.

Disney and ESPN have mostly been alone among the major network congloms in offering a 3D cable network.

Burns hailed the announcement of NBC’s 3D coverage of the Summer Olympics and said, “I think (other networks) will follow. It’s bit of a different environment than it was ten years ago (when HD was introduced) as far as bandwidth to the home from our distributor partners. We’re comfortable leading the way. We don’t mind going out there when there’s not a totally solid and secure business plan, and making markets. We’re good at that.”

In the wake of recent announcements that France’s Canal Plus is discontinuing its 3D channel and that Sensio and others are launching 3D streaming services, Burns suggested an ESPN 3D streaming service may be in the works.

“I think we’ll try first to work through our normal distribution partners,” he said.

“We’re going to look at mobile devices, streaming to the home, but we’re first looking to dance with the girl that brought us to the dance, and that’s Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner and companies of that ilk. We’ll go shopping there first and see how we do, but we’re already thinking about what’s the next stage for us past a normal, typical, distribution by television channel.”

For now, ESPN is looking for specific gains for its cable channel: securing sponsorships from 3D TV makers, inspiring retailers to do a better job showcasing 3D televisions and content, and prodding consumers to demand ESPN 3D from TV providers. And among pros at CES, there’s no small amount of buzz that 3D sports, especially football, is a killer app for 3D.

“You’ve got to see it. We have to get the ability to see this out to the public,” Burns said, “because when they see it, they do believe.”