Before I paint the picture of ESPN’s annual upfront presentation for 2013, let me first give you a quick recap of last year’s edition: the place was packed with advertisers and sports media observers (of course, the show is mostly for the advertisers). The headliners were “stars (including would-be ESPN analyst Ray Lewis), a marching band (the one belonging to The Ohio State University) [and] mascots (Mr. Met and Al E. Gator, among others).” Many of the announcements last year included the unveiling of a new ESPN Radio app, and the expansion of Bill Simmons’ Grantland franchise.
You could say that this year’s ESPN upfront presentation was just a little bit different: oh, sure, the ad buyers and sports media flacks packed the house again, and sports stars were once again present; in fact, New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera “closed” the event (watch the righty, currently in his final year in the major leagues, shadow Lewis and become an analyst next year; in fact, bank on it). And yes, there was some more mascot mischief.
But when you’ve got a competitor in Fox Sports 1 launching in a few months – perhaps the first network in the Worldwide Leader’s existence that can call themselves a legitimate competitor – not only do you have to top your previous upfront, oh, no: you also have to top Fox Sports 1’s upfront in March.
Yes, there was your average slew of announcements – new slate of “30 For 30” documentary films; new football (“NFL Insiders”, replacing the incumbent “NFL32”) and soccer (“ESPNFC”) programs; new “ESPN The Magazine” “body issue” featuring San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in all his tattooed glory, much to the chagrin of David Whitley.
But there were two gigantic things that ESPN unveiled at this year’s upfront.
First, starting next year, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” shows will emanate from a brand new, state-of-the-art – make that continent-of-the-art, it’s so huge – 193,000 square foot studio, being billed “Digital Center 2.” Estimated cost to erect the set: $125 million.
Yes, cable subscribers, that is where your hard-earned inflated cable bill dollars is going.
Oh, and you’ll also be footing the bill for fuel that ESPN will be needing to get around in their brand new bus!
The vehicle, dubbed “SportsCenter On The Scene,” will be mobile for many sporting events year-round. Among its features, according to the network, are “satellite technology, bureau kit camera, lighting and equipment to do a live shot.” Yes, but will it prevent the trajectory of rogue water bottles being thrown in its direction?
By the way, ESPN’s “SportsCenter On The Scene” bus is said to be the first vehicle for the Worldwide Leader since Stephen A. Smith’s old late-night talk show on ESPN2, “Quite Frankly.”
And ESPN president John Skipper was quite frank in talking about the soon-to-be-launched Fox Sports 1 and other competitors that are already in battle (CBS and NBC Sports Network, just to name a couple) in the sports cable trenches. “We like competition,” he admitted. “It makes us better.”
Well, if it took Fox being committed to a new national sports cable network for ESPN to make a dramatic upgrade in their “SportsCenter” set and add a pair of wheels, what took them so long?
Yes, who needs the duo from the Canadian version of “SportsCenter” (that would be Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, who will be leaving TSN to anchor Fox Sports 1’s nightly “Fox Sports Live” program) when you can watch who we have in a breathtaking new structure!
There’s ESPN bidding aggressively on sports broadcasting contracts – and it is these contracts, as well as long-term carriage deals with cable companies, that Skipper says is the backbone of ESPN’s success – and then there’s flat-out largesse.
A bus? Really? Were plans for a “SportsCenter In The Sky” helicopter a little out of hand?
In a related item, earlier in the day, Fox Sports fired a salvo and announced that when the current Speed channel morphs into Fox Sports 1 on August 17, its action sports-themed network Fuel will indeed be transformed into Fox Sports 2 on the very same day. A third Fox Sports network (Fox College Sports?) can’t be far behind at this point.
But for now, with its splashy “look at how much money and talent we have” upfront, ESPN wins the day in the end.
The question is, will they win the fight with the elephant in the room that will be Fox Sports 1?