NEW YORK -- With mascots (Brutus Buckeye, Albert E. Gator, and KC Wolf), a marching band (The Ohio State University Marching Band) and a mélange of on-air talent (Mike Greenberg, Jon Gruden, Sage Steele among others), ESPN held its annual upfront presentation Tuesday afternoon at the Best Buy Theater in New York's Times Square. What are upfronts? It's a network's attempt to woo marketers and media planners to support its upcoming summer and fall schedule, and part of the sell job includes plying said business people with food and entertainment.
For instance, as part of the hawking for Monday Night Football, ESPN brought in Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Giants defensive end Justin Tuck to banter on stage with Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico before the football players signed and posed for a photo in the lobby. (In the same mien, Knicks center Tyson Chandler was forced to endure a sketch with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, the co-hosts of ESPN2's oleaginous First Take program.)
The biggest news to come out of the hourlong presentation was the announcement that ESPN was embarking on another 30 for 30 film series beginning in October, including a 30 for 30 Shorts initiative that will be featured on Grantland.com. ESPN Films will also produce Nine for IX, a series of nine documentary films about women in sports directed by female filmmakers, which also looks promising.
What was particularly interesting were comments made afterward by ESPN president John Skipper, who spoke with a small group of reporters, including SI.com, on a number of ESPN-related topics:
Q: How would classify your interest in a college football playoff, if and when that happens?
Skipper: Our interest would be acute. It would be very high. We are the incumbent and our preference and intention would be to remain the broadcaster for the college football championship.
Q: How concerned are you about NBC and Comcast creating a national network to rival you?
Skipper: We know those guys. They have significant resources and smart folks there. They have platforms, so we have a lot of respect for what they do, and we of course pay attention. However, we've been doing this for 32 years and I do think there's a little too much respect paid to the great brand names. Everybody sort of assumes, 'Oh, my gosh, NBC is going to a 24/7 network and it's a two-horse race." But they don't look like we look. You guys saw all the stuff today -- mobile, Internet. We have more viewers in an average minute on ESPN mobile than they have on NBC Sports Network.
Q: Why have you gone to a two-man booth on Monday Night?
Skipper: Jaws [Ron Jaworski] is great. What we are mostly trying to do is we want to ride Gruden. Gruden is a star. You have seen his QB show. He has a lot of personality. He has a lot to say. There was some concern that he and Jaws sounded a little bit the same in the booth. We just thought it would help viewers sort of understand who was there. Our sense is we ride Mr. Gruden a little bit. I think he can be a big star.
"Mike is as good as it gets on play-by-play and we think with Mike and Jon we have a fabulous two-person both. We added Lisa Salters this year, who I think has done a great job on the NBA sidelines. We like to change things up but look, we love Jaws, and I don't think anyone doubts that. He is still going to be important to us. We signed him to do a new deal so he will be around ESPN for a long time and there is nobody better at the sort of X's and O's, NFL matchups. He'll be busy.
Q: Regarding social media, how do you feel about your employees tweeting out political or religious statements? Where do you stand on the line between an individual's right to express his or her opinion, and an individual working for ESPN expressing an opinion?
Skipper: It's something that is consistently evolving but we do try to think about a few things. We do consistently tell all of our guys that no matter what you do you are ESPN's John Smith or Jane Smith. So just keep in mind that you are not an unencumbered private citizen. There is going to be attention paid, and if you tweet out something inappropriate it can be a problem. It's not going to be private citizen so and so but it's going to be ESPN's so-and-so said the following.
So they have a responsibility of thinking about that, and understanding there are consequences if they do something inappropriate. For sports, you work for us. So if you are tweeting about sports, you are working. It's a microphone. If you are tweeting, it's the same as if someone put a microphone in front of your face.
On the other hand we do try to be sensitive that people are private citizens and if they want to tweet that I'm at a great restaurant or you want to tell people you have great flowers in my garden, great.
You asked politics and religion: Our advice is to be really, really careful. They are polarizing topics in our society right now and it does us no good and you no good if you get out in front of something. People have the right to be private citizens and have points of view but we just tell them you are in a public forum and be cognizant of it. It's a tough one but I do think we have been out in front of it and we do have policies.
Q: What are you concerned with from a programming perspective?
Skipper: We have some discussions going with college [football], and it remains a wild and wooly landscape, but our single largest programming priority now is [major league] baseball. We have two more years on the deal, and so in this case the negotiating period is well in front. The product would not be available until 2014 and we love our relationship [with MLB] and we are anxious to renew it and extend and get some more product.
Q: Do you feel some loss this month without hockey?
Skipper: We have been very clear: We like hockey. We wish we had it. We bid for it. We wish we had it and we cover it aggressively across our programs. We still have Barry Melrose on every day. Do we wish that right now we wish we had some hockey because it's an important thing happening in sports? Absolutely. They [NBC] have done a good job with it.
Q: Last year you announced two new programs at the upfronts -- Dan LeBatard Is Highly Questionable and Numbers Never Lie. How would you evaluate where these shows are?
Skipper: We are very thrilled with where they are. Both shows have a very strategic purpose. For the LeBatard show, we as a company need to get a higher participation by Latino viewers in the U.S. We under index with Hispanic viewers. They are 12 to 14 percent of the population and our average show is more like 6 to 8 percent Hispanic.
The LeBatard show immediately has the highest composition of any show we have among Hispanic Americans. So that show has the purpose of beginning to help Latinos understand that ESPN is for them, which is also why we are hiring more Hispanic talent. We have commercials in Spanish. We are doing a lot of La Liga games in Spanish. Given the importance of that portion of our population over the next few years, we have to embrace that, and that is what LeBatard is about.
Numbers Never Lie is part of, along with ESPN The Magazine and some other places, making sure we stay forefront with analytics. That show has the strategic purpose of making sure that we are leaders in thinking of new ways of looking at numbers. I am very happy in both cases for what they doing strategically. We hope in the next year or two to get the ratings go up more. But we are happy so far with where they are.
Q: It's been reported in multiple places Michelle Beadle is leaving ESPN for another company. What are your plans to replace her?
Skipper: We believe we have a deep bench and we are not yet prepared to announce who will replace her. But we have a couple of good candidates internally, and our expectations will stay internal.
Michelle did a great job. We love Michelle. We wish her well. We are sorry she's leaving. We worked hard to try to keep her but she has some different aspirations and we wish her well on those. She did a great job. Colin did a great job as well. However, as we have discovered, these shows work. If you have a good format, the shows can work when you transition to a different host. Now it is inappropriate to suggest that hosts are interchangeable but, of course, I was once fired from a job and learned the great lesson that no one is indispensable, life goes on, and when the business did not fail, I was disappointed.
Q: Is it too overarching to say there has been an exodus of talent from ESPN over the last 12 months or is "exodus" making too much of it?
Skipper: Of course you are making too much of it (laughs). Look, we have close to 1,000 people who appear on air, write for the magazine, appear on the radio. If you actually look at it proportionally, it would be tiny. The vast majority of our talent is long-term and is around for a number of years and wants to be at ESPN.
We try really hard to maintain cordial relationships, whether they want to be in a different location or have different aspirations relative to genre. Some people are going to leave. If you were looking for talent and you are in the sports business, where are you going to look? We are the farm system for the entire business really. So it's not surprising that for a few people they will find it is a way to get a raise or to get a bigger platform, although they seldom find that there is a bigger platform.
It's OK. It gives opportunity for somebody else. I do think getting excited about people leaving is very overrated -- whether it be executives or on-air. Mostly it gives somebody else a chance to shine and I can't think of a single instance where losing a talent has been significantly debilitating to a specific program. I don't think we've ever canceled a program because we couldn't find somebody to do it.
Q: Is Erin Andrews re-signing with you?
Skipper: We are in discussions with Erin. Erin does a great job for us. Our preference would be for her to stay
Q: Why does First Take work as a four-hour daily play for your brand?
Skipper: Well, Jamie Horowitz is the new producer and I think he has really gotten them to a neat format with Jay Crawford and Skip [Bayless] and Stephen A. Smith. We just signed Stephen A. up for a long-term deal. They are reacting to current news. We have kind of a SportsCenter vibe on One [ESPN] and a First Take vibe on ESPN2. It works off current events.
We do know that people go back and forth. They watch the sports news then flip over and get a little of Stephen A and Skip, and I think they find it provocative and fun. When you have two people, whether it is Michelle and Colin Cowherd, Mike and Mike or Tony and Mike, you can tell when people actually have chemistry. These guys actually have chemistry. They actually love each other. They are good pals, they like the sparring, and I think that comes across.
Q: So editorially and philosophically, you like the direction the show has headed?
Skipper: For that show. We are frequently accused of, "Oh, my gosh, ESPN is a whole bunch of shouting." We don't have a whole bunch of shouting. For the most part, we have toned down a lot of what we do. We try to insist people have informed opinions, smart opinions and people do their homework. By the way, Skip and Stephen prepare a lot, and for that show we allow a little more fun and exasperation.
But you should not read into it that, "Oh, my gosh, ESPN is heading off into this direction." For the most part, we want informed, sort of quiet opinion. But it works on that show. You have to have changeup, right? We have a ton of platforms and shows. So if everything looks the same, that's among the hardest things for us. How do you differentiate? That's where you do an analytics show. There's where you do a show that has a Cuban feel to it. You do a show with different personalities.
Q: Magic Johnson is now a part owner of the Dodgers. He has long been a vice president with the Lakers. How should viewers view an analyst who has business ties with sports that you cover?
Skipper: It's an interesting question, and I think the main thing we have to be is transparent. I am not sure what we have done relative to making sure what we have disclosed with Magic. He is not likely to be doing anything on our air relative to the Dodgers, and we would be pretty careful around what exposure we provide there.
In basketball, he has been a vice president a long time and that has been transparent. If you have seen Magic this year, he has been terrific in terms of being willing to have critical opinions and take on people. We are cognizant of it. We just have to be transparent. We can't be hiding anything. We can't be doing anything that feels like it's a conflict. But it is a reasonable thing for us to be concerned about.
Q: Your NBA pregame show has had a new direction this year without a traditional host, and a location move to Los Angeles. How would you evaluate that change and has it worked?
Skipper: I think it has worked great. It has been fun. We are trying to do things different. TNT, of course, has a fabulous show. They have been tough to compete with. It's a great show and Charles Barkley is a unique personality. We decided not to be a second version of what they do. We try to do something different and that's what you do. When you have a tough, pre-eminent competitor, you have to do something different.
The extended rollout of NBC's Olympic plans -- the idea being to release news in drips to get some pub for each release -- continued Tuesday night with the announcement that cable channels MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo would air 284.5 hours of coverage from London.
• MSNBC (155.5 hours) will show 20 sports in London, including basketball, soccer and wrestling. The network also will open the competition on July 25 at 10:30 a.m. ET -- two days before Opening Ceremonies -- with Great Britain facing New Zealand in women's soccer from Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Longtime Golf Channel commentator Kelly Tilghman will serve as MSNBC's Olympic host.
• CNBC (73 hours) will be the home for boxing, including the debut of women's boxing. Fred Roggin, a longtime sports anchor at NBC's Los Angeles affiliate, KNBC, will serve as the Olympic boxing host.
• Bravo (56 hours) will have the much-anticipated tennis competition from Wimbledon. Pat O'Brien, the former CBS broadcaster-turned-Entertainment Tonight host-turned- sexually-graphic phone message-star-turned-Fox Sports Radio sports talk host -- will host the network's coverage. O'Brien has hosted five previous Olympics, including three for NBC and two for CBS, and while few things are likely to survive a nuclear war, the hire proves O'Brien is one of them.