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With Fox gearing up to launch a 24-hour sports network this August, John Skipper, president of incumbent ESPN addressed the elephant in the room at the network’s upfront presentation Tuesday – literally.
As University of Alabama mascot Al the Elephant wandered onto the stage of the Best Buy Theater, Skipper noted that “several broadcast companies have decided that there might be something to this 24-hour sports channel thing.”
NBC and CBS also have beefed up their respective cable sports offerings but, unlike ESPN, neither NBC Sports Network nor CBS Sports Network have NFL regular season or playoff games. The biggest league rater on NBC Sports Network is the NHL. CBS Sports Network does not release its ratings.
“We at ESPN like competition,” continued Skipper. “It makes us better. It makes us sharper.” Skipper also noted the slew of carriage deals that ESPN has recently renewed including with Cox, Charter, Cablevision, AT&T and Google Fiber.
He also ticked off several rights expansions and acquisitions including an expanded deal with Major League Baseball, the rights to Wimbledon (which the network poached in 2011 from longtime presenter NBC) and multiple college football divisions (Big 12, ACC, Big East, Mountain West and the first-ever college football playoff).
Skipper, a native of Lexington, N.C., who still has a hint of his southern drawl, went off script with Al the Elephant: “I love improvising with a mute, it’s excellent. I could use more employees like you.”
During a post-session scrum with reporters, Skipper praised the business acumen of the executives at Fox and NBC. But he added, “what matters at the end of the day is; what is your level of distribution and what subscription fees are you getting from that and what is the live content that you have to put on that fans want? And I would ask everybody writing all of these stories about competition to look at what we actually have before there’s any discussion about a head-to-head competition.”
To that end, the company is making a significant investment in its most important brand – SportsCenter. The franchise will get a new 10,000 square foot SportsCenter studio next year at ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters. The state-of-the-art facility will have approximately 350 video display units throughout. The show will also debut multiple new features including the traveling feature SportsCenter on the Scene, which will be made possible by a bus outfitted by satellite technology, cameras, lights and a space for live interviews.
Skipper also took issue with the drumbeat in favor of un-bundling cable subscriptions including a recent a la carte bill proposed by Arizona senator John McCain. “When you look at what you get in a cable subscription, it is a spectacular value,” said Skipper. “For $70 or $80 a month is what it would cost a family of four to go to the movies one time.”
“You have to pay attention when John McCain speaks,” he added. “We had him on ESPN radio yesterday. But right now our prognosis is we do not think a la carte has merit.”
A new season of well-regarded film series 30 for 30 will bow Oct. 1, and include: Big Shot, directed by Entourage star Kevin Connolly and recounting con man John Spano’s attempt to buy the New York Islanders; director Sam George‘s Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau about the surfing icon; and No Mas, about Roberto Duran‘s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard, from director Eric Drath.
ESPN also will beef up its already considerable NFL coverage with a new one-hour weekly football program hosted by veteran anchor Suzy Kolber. NFL Insiders will bow Aug. 5, and focus on the biggest pro football stories of the week including trades, coaching moves, front office decisions and the draft. NFL reporters Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter will be featured prominently.
The network will also launch its first daily soccer show Aug. 11 on ESPN2. ESPNFC will air Sunday through Friday. The brand will also have a web destination (ESPNFC.com) and ESPN FC app.
The presentation was co-hosted by SportsCenter’s Stan Verrett and Neil Everett and included appearances by legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, Ohio State University head coach Urban Meyer, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who previewed his sexy photo shoot for ESPN the Magazine‘s annual Body Issue.
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