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ESPN's Upfront: A High School Play with Donovan McNabb

Posted by: Burth Helm on May 15, 2007

This morning felt more like some weird dream than ESPN’s actual advertiser presentation. Let me put you there, right in the cramped, hot, seats of the Nokia Theater, and save you the 90-minute-plus presentation:

Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s head of ad sales, comes onstage and starts addressing the audience. But he’s not at an upfront. He’s in a living room with a twelve-year-old girl. The little girl, named Peggy, starts talking with him. She’s the daughter of a major media buyer, it turns out. The media buyer, confused that an ESPN ad sales executive would visit him at home, asks Erhardt to leave. Erhardt explains he was just there to provide a segue. A literal Segway arrives. Erhardt rides off on that Segway. Then the media buyer sits with his daughter to read her a story from her favorite book, “The Children’s Garden of Branding Stories.” We’re just getting started.

This launches us into a jargony musical – yes, a singing, dancing, musical — that highlights all of the different ways ESPN can slice and dice multi-platform advertising deals.

The story, about a basketball star with a secret penchant for the sport of Curling (his claim to fame is that he can perform a 900-degree slam dunk), drags along with high school-caliber overacting from both hired actors and ESPN executives. It gets more weird-dream-like: Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb shows up in one scene, wandering in to deliver monotone lines. Venus Williams is there too, inexplicably selling Italian ices named after the fictional basketball star, who goes by the name "Freeze." Freeze asks Williams for an ice. She whips out her tennis racket and serves it in his face. Then, the show ends with a singing and dancing homage to ESPN. Here's the chorus: “Ain’t no brand that can break through all the noise / Ain’t no other brands.”

This might have been funny and cute if it moved much quicker, and was, well, funny. But it all felt like the result of a long, sad set of brainstorming sessions with smart, horrifically unfunny executives.

There’s been more and more chatter that this year could spell the last of the great network upfronts, with major advertisers like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson staying home. Erhardt acknowledged that this morning, saying this was an attempt to try a fresh take. The biggest laugh was for content chief John Skipper towards the end, who characterized the show this way: “We’re looking to break new ground in pandering.” Unfortunately, he and his team didn't give those advertisers much reason to show up next year.

In terms of actual news this morning from ESPN, there wasn’t much. It will be launching a news magazine show this September, called ESPN Reports, which execs characterized as “60 Minutes” meets the “Mod Squad.” It will also continue to be an absolute juggernaut in sports and one of the most comprehensive multi-platform ad offerings out there, meaning it can continue to bring us bizarre upfront presentations without much consequence.



News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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