Ed Erhardt doesn’t do sports coverage for ESPN, but he’s managed to make a few interesting calls of his own in the two decades he’s worked there.
During his time as the head of ad-sales at the Walt Disney owned sports-media giant, ESPN has unveiled the “double box,” a split-screen execution that allows viewers to watch live action even as an ad unfurls on screen. He has pushed advertisers to accept a single audience measure that takes into account both streaming and linear viewers – a dynamic that has accounted for ratings gains at ESPN. Under his aegis, ESPN launched its own in-house creative agency. He also was the first TV executive to place a cable network into TV’s glitzy “upfront” week, previously dominated by broadcasters. After ESPN appeared there in 2007, other cable networks tried to follow.
Sports programming often serves as a first place for new TV-commercial formats to surface, as anyone who has seen an ad mascot turn up during a football pre-game show to talk with the hosts might tell you. Erhardt has helped put in place some of TV advertising’s most interesting new concepts.
“I was able to basically do a lot of that, because ESPN was a great place to be innovative,” said Erhardt in an interview. “I do think sports will continue to be the leader in innovation around a wide variety of things.”
Erhardt plans to retire from the job in early 2019, as Walt Disney moves to combine ad-sales efforts for ESPN with those for its ABC and Disney broadcast and cable outlets. Rita Ferro will oversee the new company-wide organization, and Erhardt plans to stay through the end of the year to assist Ferro and Kevin Mayer, to whom she will report, in their efforts to reorganize Disney’s ad-sales teams.
He had considered stepping down at the end of 2017, but found himself called upon to stay as ESPN went through a transition in leadership. John Skipper left unexpectedly late last year and Disney named Jimmy Pitaro to take over the unit in 2018. “I care about the company. I care about ESPN. I care about the people,” says Erhardt. “I opted to stay for another year.”
While Erhardt has been a student of Madison Avenue – he served as publisher of the trade outlet Advertising Age before arriving at ESPN in 1999 – he has also been a professor. Many clients have been recipients of the short notes he often sends, citing a recent news item about the ad world and telling them how ESPN might help them take advantage of it.
He sees more change on the horizon. He expects sports programming to feature more “real time” advertising as marketers use technology to insert commercials more quickly, rather than relying on the same video spot for weeks on end. He also expects more advertisers to use sports content as a way to spark e-commerce opportunities – real-time buying to go along with the real-time selling. “I do think advertising and commerce are going to meld,” he says. “That’s because the nature of sports, the definition of sports continues to broaden, whether that be e-sports or gaming, or virtual reality. All of these experiences lend themselves quite well to innovation, real-time marketing, and, ultimately, commerce.”
Former ESPN chief George Bodenheimer recruited Erhardt in 1999 to merge ad-sales teams from ESPN and ABC Sports, and he represented an unconventional choice. “It was quite controversial,” recalls Erhardt. “What was this guy from a trade magazine doing coming in to run ESPN and ABC Sports sales?” But his time at the outlet gave him a better understanding of ESPN content as editioral product as well as access to CEOs, CMOs and a legion of marketing executives that would prove useful.
One of Erhardt’s favorite achievements is convincing Home Depot to sponsor college-football coverage on Saturdays, known as “College GameDay Built by The Home Depot.” All he had to do was throw in a verb that tied the content to the sponsor. Erhardt says he first broached the notion with former Home Deport CMO John Costello at a Super Bowl. ESPN was losing its sponsor of college football coverage and saw an opportunity to do something different. “I said, ‘John, you sell a lot of things on Saturdays, don’t you?” The alliance has been in place for 15 years.
Erhardt credits the people he has worked with for keeping him going over two decades. “It is a good job, I get to go to games and market ESPN, but it’s a great job because of the people that I work with and have worked for.”
Erhardt “has a knack for closing deals that work for everyone around the table. I admired him before I arrived at ESPN and I have leaned on his expertise since I’ve joined the organization,” said ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro, in a statement. “We will miss him but I am grateful he’ll be staying on as we transition into the new organization.”
He plans to get involved with charitable works and mentoring after he steps down, and also dabble, potentially, in the theater business. It’s a venue that has attracted other top sports marketers, like Tony Ponturo, the former Anheuser-Busch advertising executive. But Erhardt also suggests he might do some consulting for companies that capture his interest. He may still have a few appearances to make on the field of play.