ESPN has a lock on many big-audience sports properties, like “Monday Night Football” and “Sunday Night Baseball.” But the sports-media juggernaut said it would loosen its hold on two important pieces of sports content in an effort to get a broader audience to watch them.
ESPN said it would allow two prized programming assets – a broadcast of a National Football League wild card game and its annual ESPY awards – to run on sister Disney outlet ABC. The football game will be simulcast on both networks, along with ESPN’s pre-game coverage.
“Our goal is to try to increase the audience” for both properties, said John Skipper (above, pictured), president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, in remarks made to reporters Tuesday morning. “You will see us being a little more opportunistic with ABC,” he added. “We want to figure out where we can take advantage of it.” Skipper said ESPN brought the wild card idea to the NFL, and was not trying to fulfill a demand made by the sports league. “It does not portend some dramatic shift in our emphasis.”
Indeed, much of a presentation ESPN made Tuesday to advertisers as part of TV’s annual upfront market focused on new ways the sports outlet and ABC could present content together. ESPN will move its popular “Mike & Mike” radio program into the same Times Square building in New York City where ABC’s “Good Morning America” is broadcast, in the hopes of getting guests from one show to appear on the other, while selling advertising packages that include both properties. The two networks also unveiled a package of ESPN college-football championship games and ABC’s long-running “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”
On the surface, ESPN and ABC are quite different. ESPN skews male. ABC attracts a preponderance of female viewers. One is devoted to sports. The other juggles an array of different programs. But in a media environment in which advertisers want to buy across different kinds of media to reach very specific niches of consumers, the two must find more ways to work together to bolster parent company Walt Disney.
To do so, ESPN is doing something that flies in the face of current convention. The network’s distributors pay a hefty fee for its programming – in excess of $4 per subscriber per month, according to market-research firm SNL Kagan – and placing what were once exclusive properties on a general-consumption outlet like ABC might be perceived as unlocking a door to content that was once harder to reach. ESPN’s Skipper said the network has spent much time adding new content and features to ESPN that builds value for distributors.
With many of its broadcasting rights for major sports locked up for years, ESPN focused this year on tweaks to its other mainstays. The network said it would add two new hours of “SportsCenter” between the morning hours of 7 and 9 a.m. This edition of the show was billed as being more fast paced and designed for viewers who don’t have much time to watch TV. “SportsCenter AM” will look at the previous night’s top plays, quotes and blunders, all in a live setting. The network also signed a multiyear extension with radio personality Scott Van Pelt, who will helm a new midnight edition of “SportsCenter” that will focus on his viewpoint and commentary.
Executives had very little new to say about Bill Simmons, the ESPN personality who is parting ways with the company after the two sides were not able to come to agreement in contract talks. “It didn’t come down to money. We’re a big company. If it were just dollars and cents, we would ultimately have figured it out. It’s about, ultimately, what he wants to do, what value that creates, what he wants to do, what we want to do together, and deciding whether it’s going to be a match. And we decided, ultimately, there wouldn’t be.” ESPN intends to support Grantland, the digital publication Simmons founded “at the same financial level and staff.”