ESPN Goes for the Extra Point With Hackathons

Media giant adopts a tech-sector ritual to get employees innovating

Showcasing a playoff tournament among battle-tested teams is nothing unusual at ESPN. But the one the media behemoth held over two days in New York last month didn’t involve pro athletes clashing on the playing field.

This was a “hackathon,” a kind of brainstorming session on amphetamines more common within companies in Silicon Valley than in Hollywood or on Madison Avenue. Aiming to spur internal innovation in a way you might not expect from a brand that’s been around since 1979, ESPN has hosted several such events, the latest one devoted to its digital-ad business.

“We set ad innovation as one of our priorities for 2013,” said John Kosner, exec veep of digital and print media at ESPN, which invited Variety to get a glimpse of a process that typically plays out behind closed doors. “We thought it could be interesting to try (the hackathon approach) with our advertising department.”

The main event took place in the 262-seat auditorium on the New York Institute of Technology’s Upper West Side campus, a former movie theater outfitted with a 24-foot-wide screen and digital projector. A quick-turnaround competition involved about 80 of the network’s developers, product managers and sales reps from the mothership in Bristol, Conn., as well as San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Texas and even one solo presenter from India, repping her Bangalore colleagues.

Each of the 15 squads had 24 hours to mash up a compelling pitch. They met on April 23, to start work on their proposals; some were seeing their teammates in person for the fi rst time. The teams then decamped to work into the evening at hotels or one of ESPN’s New York City offices, returning — slightly bleary-eyed — the next afternoon for the final pitches.

Teams presented their ideas for new forms of digital advertising, grilled by a receptive but critically minded panel of six judges from ESPN and ABC’s sales exec ranks. Contestants had exactly three minutes to impress them, as well as about 250 ESPN biz folks observing from under the dim house lights, applauding and cheering for their favorites.

During one demo, the timekeeper cut off the presenter before he was done showing off all the cool features of his team’s app. “Thirty more seconds?” he implored. “Wrap up now,” she insisted.

“It was a hard stop on the shot clock,” said exec veep of multimedia sales Eric Johnson, who was one of the judges and primary organizers.

They had to talk fast, throwing up PowerPoint slides, Web animations and app demos on the auditorium’s big screen. Some cut to the chase: The team leader for ESPN Alerts, whose idea was to insert interactive, graphical ads into real-time sports scores and breaking news alerts, pointed out that the programmer’s millions of daily mobile alerts were not being monetized at all.

After all 15 teams had taken the stage, the jurists retired to deliberate in a back room as the theme from “Jeopardy” played. More than just bragging rights and high fi ves were on the line. The hackathon’s grand prize is an all-expense-paid trip to college football’s Bowl Championship Series game in January at the Rose Bowl. Runners-up received Apple TV set-tops and gift cards.

The champion: Gamebreak, a video advertising unit built around highlight footage for ESPN’s popular online Game-Cast service, which lets fans follow sporting events that aren’t available to watch on TV or online. The Alerts crew took second place.

Brian Doyle, ESPN’s senior director of mobile sales and strategy development, headed the Gamebreak team. Happy but bushed after the victory, announced just after 5 p.m. on the second day of the event, he was still in sales mode. “We know our sponsors and fans can’t get enough video,” Doyle said.

ESPN expects to make hackathons a central part of the digital-ad development playbook. Execs were surprised at the response when they put out the call for entries: ESPNers submitted 120 ideas, which were winnowed down to the shortlist of 15 that competed. “I was blown away at how many people wanted to take part,” said Kosner.

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