SBJ/March 26 - April 1, 2007/This Weeks News

ESPN racks up big sales for MLS season

ESPN’s $64 million bet on Major League Soccer will start April 7 with a full-blown production that will feature more bells and whistles than the league has ever seen.

The network also will enjoy more television advertising dollars than the league has ever produced. ESPN reports that it is 95 percent sold for the season and sold out for the first quarter of the season. This is the first year ESPN has sold MLS inventory, which was sold by Soccer United Marketing last year.

ESPN will launch its marketing campaign for
MLS this week. The network has an eight-year,
$64M deal to carry the league.

“We’ve brought a lot to the table and have it across several platforms,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president of content. “We’re using the magazine, dot-com — people have found that attractive.”

So far, advertisers include Honda, Panasonic, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the U.S. Marines. Adidas will be the presenting sponsor for “MLS Primetime Thursday.” Pepsi agreed to sponsor the halftime show, in addition to three strips during the game.

“We have some units and a couple of wraps [left], and we will sell out the entire season,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s vice president of programming.

Most of the advertisers who have signed up already are official partners of the league, which means they are contracted to buy TV time on ESPN, according to at least one media buyer.

Other advertisers were attracted to the young, male demographic that follows soccer, said Tom McGovern, OMD’s director of sports media.

“Nobody expects soccer to deliver enormous ratings,” McGovern said. “But it will deliver a pretty attractive demographic.”

ESPN, which is paying $8 million annually over eight years for MLS rights, plans to launch a marketing campaign this week, built around what the network is calling “MLS Primetime Thursday” — an exclusive 7:30 p.m. window for games scheduled to be shown on ESPN2.

Spots using the theme “You’re a fan, you just don’t know it yet” will run on all ESPN networks starting today. The three 30-second spots were created by Wieden & Kennedy, New York. There also will be ads in print and on radio.

The regular slots are designed to attract average sports fans who may not be avid soccer fans, Skipper said.

The network also plans to leverage some of its other assets in promoting the league by having star players such as Landon Donovan appear as guests on “Cold Pizza” or having shows such as “PTI” debate whether MLS will be popular.

David Beckham’s arrival will get prominent play, as well. What is expected to be his first game against Chelsea on July 21 will be the only MLS game shown on ESPN. Five more Galaxy games will follow on ESPN2.

ESPN also will highlight other players in an effort to build one star per team. It will promote players such as the New England Revolution’s Shalrie Joseph or the New York Red Bulls’ Josmer Altidore in weekly tune-in spots.

“We can’t just rely on Beckham,” said Tim Scanlan, senior coordinating producer. “We have to build young stars.”

ESPN will use a production package that emphasizes storytelling rather than the wall-to-wall play-by-play often used by European soccer broadcasters, Skipper said.

“We have rejected the notion that the way you go is to replicate the television broadcasts of the current leaders in soccer,” Skipper said. “We just don’t think that works for a U.S. audience.”

Talent includes Dave O’Brien, Eric Wynalda, Rob Stone and Julie Foudy.

For most games, the network will use the same number of cameras as in past years, when MLS oversaw production, but it will expand that number from 12 to 18 for games like Beckham’s premiere July 21.

Among those cameras will be a Skycam, the overhead camera used during NFL games to track action from behind a play. MLS will be the first soccer league to feature the camera.

ESPN also will employ a sideline reporter, Allen Hopkins, who will have unfettered access to players and coaches during games.

The production will feature the same graphic system ESPN uses for the network’s “Monday Night Football” broadcasts. Scanlan plans to feature more statistics this year, such as a ratio of successful corner kicks.

On replays of offside plays, the broadcasts also will feature offside replays with a line linked to the second-to-last defender. It will be similar to the yellow line marking a first down during football broadcasts, but it will move with the second-to-last player, to show if an offensive player is offside.

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