Inside ESPN's Upfront: Jimmy Pitaro's Debut, Cord-Cutting, A-Rod, Kobe Bryant

The network’s pitch to advertisers is essentially that sports sells itself.
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James Pitaro

It’s a new day at ESPN. That was apparent after ESPN’s presentation to advertisers when newly minted president Jimmy Pitaro addressed reporters from a glass podium set up outside the mezzanine at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre. Pitaro was named president earlier this year in the wake of predecessor John Skipper’s abrupt departure in December. Skipper, who subsequently revealed that he stepped down because of an extortion plot, had a more casual approach to the annual post-upfront scrum; he stood in the corner and waited for reporters to envelope him. Or as Pitaro put it: “A couple of years ago it was John Skipper on a fire escape.” Pitaro, who comes from the ranks of Disney corporate and is still commuting between Los Angeles — until his kids finish the school year — and Bristol, Connecticut, is clear about his mandate: "How we can be more relevant to more people, especially the younger generation?"

That should not be a tall order for ESPN. The network's pitch to advertisers is essentially that sports sells itself. There is still no other genre of television that matters more to advertisers than the kind watched live. Despite some ratings softening for the NFL regular season, the NBA is up (on Turner and ESPN). ESPN, like most cable networks, has seen its subscriber base contract (presently 87 million compared to a peak of more than 100 million 15 years ago). OTT service ESPN+ is still in its infancy; after launching last month, analysts have estimated that the $5-a-month platform has about 100,000 subscribers. ESPN has not revealed an official number.

ESPN personality Kenny Mayne offered bracing reality in the form of comic relief. Mayne took the stage of the Minskoff dressed as a yoga guru in white Kurta pajamas. “Does anybody have any clue what the future is going to bring?” asked Mayne. “ESPN does, not just this year, next year and in perpetuity throughout the universe.”

Later, ad sales chief Ed Erhardt wrapped up the presentation with a final pitch to buyers. ESPN's live audience, he said, is the most “elusive and valuable in all of media, and we have it for you.”

THE SPIN | Pitaro took the stage early to set the table for the network’s sales pitch. He thanked Disney Media Networks co-president Ben Sherwood (his Burbank colleague) and put a positive spin on shifting consumer behavior that has led to steady erosion of ESPN’s (and other nets) subscriber base. ESPN “has a unique combination of strengths,” said Pitaro, pointing to the net’s “unique combination of strengths” including the “unrivaled emotional connection” created by sports. It all basically translates to, don’t worry, we’ve got this digital thing, and we’re still the biggest thing in live sports.

THE PITCH | Like most cable nets, ESPN’s advertising and subscriber revenue has been challenged by cord-cutting. If Tricia Betron, ESPN’s senior vp, sales and marketing, did not confront that reality head-on, she didn’t run away from it, either. Noting that her family members are “huge” New York Giants fans, she revealed that her sons watch the NFL on Red Zone, the NFL’s ad-free platform with which many sports media executives privately express frustration and wonder if it has also been a drag on the league's ratings. Betron reminds her sons, she said, “that the Red Zone doesn’t have commercials, and advertising pays for pretty much everything in their lives.” The exec then assured advertisers that “ESPN is the Red Zone for all of sports” — which basically means advertisers' messages can follow ESPN content across content and delivery systems. 

STAR POWER | Shortly before its presentation began, ESPN announced The Last Dance, a 10-hour documentary series in conjunction with Netflix about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls team. His Airness was not in the house, but advertisers were shown a 60-second clip narrated by Jordan and featuring a lot of compelling footage from the Bulls’ halcyon days. Katie Nolan had the misfortune of taking the stage right after the Last Dance segment: “It’s me, sorry. Hi,” she said. Former New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was there, fresh from his appearance the previous day at the Fox upfront presentation (Rodriguez is an MLB analyst for Fox Sports). He will host the show Pivot on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, which will have him interviewing athletes who are confronting obstacles in their careers. “You make mistakes, you don’t have to be defined by those mistakes,” said Rodriquez. Kobe Bryant was also there to talk up his ESPN digital series Detail, admitting, “it’s a little weird to be here because I always, when I played, called ESPN 'the Evil Empire.' And now here I am.”