×

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.

More TV

  • Alexander van Dülmen

    Alexander van Duelmen Talks 'Merkel,' Upcoming Films, Series

    The most defining and far-reaching decision made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her 15 years in office is the focus of a new film making its debut at Berlin’s European Film Market. “Merkel — Anatomy of a Crisis,” directed by Stephen Wagner, stars Imogen Kogge as the German leader during the dramatic days leading [...]

  • Samantha Bee Writers Office

    Samantha Bee Vows to Keep 'Full Frontal' Viewers Laughing on Road to 2020 Election

    Many late-night hosts have regular segments they can turn to again and again to get laughs. Seth Meyers has “A Closer Look.” Jimmy Kimmel has “Mean Tweets.” Jimmy Fallon has his “Thank You Notes.” And James Corden has “Carpool Karaoke.” On “Full Frontal,” one of TBS’ late-night entries, host Samantha Bee has none of those [...]

  • Trevor Noah91st Annual Academy Awards, Roaming

    Nickelodeon, Time Launch 'Kid of The Year' Awards

    Time Magazine created a franchise out of its annual “Person of the Year” issue. Now it hopes to do something similar for the younger set. Nickelodeon and Time will launch a “Kid of the Year” honor, a year-long effort that will include a TV special simulcast on both Nickelodeon and CBS, each part of ViacomCBS. [...]

  • ATYPICAL

    'Atypical' Renewed for Fourth and Final Season at Netflix

    “Atypical” is coming to an end at Netflix, with the streamer renewing the half-hour series for a fourth and final season on Monday. The new season will feature 10 episodes and will premiere in 2021. The third season debuted back in November, with the second and first seasons dropping in 2018 and 2017 respectively. “I’m [...]

  • Jason Segel

    Jason Segel on his AMC Series 'Dispatches' and Working Outside Studio Model

    “How I Met Your Mother” and “Sex Tape” actor Jason Segel has said it was a “magical midlife crisis” that inspired his new AMC series “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” in which the actor was able to take creative control and work outside of studio constraints. Segel, who was speaking Monday as part of a keynote address [...]

  • Lay's Potato Chips Bets on 'The

    Lay's Potato Chips Bets on 'The Voice,' Coachella and Snapchat

    For the next several weeks, John Legend’s favorite snack is likely to be a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips. Viewers of NBC’s “The Voice” will see the famous musician in an assortment of videos telling them about a range of new flavors for the snack that range from cheddar jalapeno, sea salt and vinegar Poppable [...]

  • Oliver-Berben-and-Uli-Edel

    Constantin TV, ZDF, Global Screen Team on 'The Palace' (EXCLUSIVE)

    BERLIN — Constantin Film, the No. 1 German independent behind the “Resident Evil” franchise, is teaming with German public broadcaster ZDF to produce “The Palace,” (“Friedrichstadt-Palast”) a period drama set at the celebrated Berlin music hall. Global Screen will handle international distribution. “Last Exit to Brooklyn’s” Uli Edel will re-team with Constantin Television, directing the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content