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‘Bold Strategy, Cotton!’ Inside ESPN’s Crazy Plans to Turn ‘The Ocho’ Into a Business

The ads are real. The network should not be.

For 24 hours, ESPN is operating what should really be a fictional network best left as part of a script to a funny cult-favorite film. “The Ocho,” an ESPN outlet devoted to niche sports like pickleball, cornhole and something called “chess boxing” is running on ESPN 2 throughout August 8 – complete with special commercials from KFC. The lineup includes two airings of the 2004 20th Century Fox film, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” in which a group of misfits assemble to play in a national dodgeball championship televised by a completely made-up “ESPN 8: The Ocho.” Today’s efforts, however, are very real.

“They are giving less celebrated sports a moment in the spotlight,” says Steve Kelly, director of media and marketing for KFC, which is sponsoring the off-kilter concept with clever ads that show athletes trying to succeed in sports with the chain’s iconic buckets over their heads. “A traditional sports audience tunes in to ESPN every day, but you would hope with the word of mouth around this, you get entertainment seekers as well.”

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ESPN tested the concept last August by running an initial version of “The Ocho” on ESPNU, its network devoted to college sports. Social-media reaction was strong enough that executives moved the concept to ESPN 2, which reaches more subscribers. “The social and fan engagement and response was far and beyond what our expectations were,” says Brent Colborne, director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, in an interview. “We all kind of realized this could go bigger.”

Producers have lined up more weird sports – and more programs in which to showcase them, says Colborne. They snared rights to air “Dodgeball,” which they hadn’t in the past. And while last year’s effort was more akin to a fringe experiment in the laziest days of summer, this year’s return had the attention of executives and producers from across the Walt Disney unit, says Colborne.

“The Ocho” was first realized as just one of many humorous “Dodgeball” concepts. As the the movie’s team, Average Joes, played, actors Gary Cole and Jason Bateman, playing ESPN announcer Cotton McKnight and his not-so-trustworthy color man Pepper Brooks threw out one laugh line after another. “I’m being told that Average Joes does not have enough players and will be forfeiting the championship match,” McKnight tells his broadcast partner. “It’s a bold strategy, Cotton,” says Brooks.  Let’s see if it pays off for ’em.” Countless re-airings on Comedy Central and sundry pay-cable movie networks over the years only served to make the concept more memorable.

The movie struck a chord at ESPN, says Colborne. It’s kind of been an ongoing funny discussion point” among producers, he says. “It’s something we’ve always had fun with, and now we are turning it into a full programming initiative.”

Maybe airing oddball sports isn’t so funny. There could be a growing business in it, as anyone who watches coverage of the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4th might tell you. “If you’ve got adequate bandwidth as a media company and you’ve got a commercial partner that thinks it can credibly reach its audience and leverage it through social media, then who are we to say it’s not a great idea?” asks David Carter,  executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. “The risk is probably limited and any upside might bear fruit for them over time.”

Counting up to “The Ocho,” however, is not as easy as it sounds. ESPN had to acquire the rights to show two of the most random events on the schedule – the aforementioned chess boxing, in which contestants play chess in a boxing ring and break it up with a little pugilism, and high-level light-saber dueling. Some other programming was filled by culling archival material from ESPN’s 1990s broadcasts, says Colborne, including lawnmower races, sumo wrestling and running from rampaging bulls.

Producers were even cognizant of viewer attention spans. “Last year we had less content and larger program windows,” he says. In 2018, “that’s too long. We have to go to shorter windows and get things moving through the course of events, give people a wider variety of things to talk about and enjoy.”

Part of the fun will be a series of ads for KFC that look a lot like the network’s fabled “SportsCenter.” During some blocks of programming, viewers will see sportscasters John Buccigross and Kenny Mayne holding forth on an “ESPN Ocho” set introducing new contests in which top athletes are blinded by KFC buckets meant to hold fried chicken.  One vignette featuring two boxers trying to engage with one another is particularly amusing.

“Our goal is always to make things as authentic as possible,” explains Carrie Brzezinski-Hsu, vice president of marketing for ESPN and head of its in-house advertiting unit, ESPN CreativeWorks. The two hosts wore the same outfits in the KFC content, she says, that they will wear as they host “Ocho” programming Wednesday. Boxer Josue Vargas and skateboarder Isiah Hilt are among the athtletes who went eyes wide open into the bucket-blinding KFC spots.

KFC and ESPN have been working on the promotions for six months, she says, and KFC’s Kelly says the marketing team began making inquiries about a second “Ocho” soon after the first had aired in 2017. Just running regular ads during the “Ocho” likely wouldn’t enagage viewers, says the marketing executive. The “Ocho” audience “expects to be entertained,” he adds. “They aren’t nervous about watching their teams perform.”

As quirky as “The Ocho” is, expectations are high, says Coloborne. “It’s not just ‘Hey, let’s throw up 24 hours of random sports programming.”


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