SBJ/October 17-23, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

ESPN to offer X Games sponsors the world

Six months after announcing plans to turn the X Games into an integrated, six-stop global property, ESPN is preparing to go to market with an exclusive, worldwide sponsorship package that covers all of its action sports events.

The deals will give sponsors a suite of assets that includes TV, digital and print advertising elements as well as the potential for branded content development. The sales effort will begin in late October, and executives at ESPN are still determining sponsorship prices.

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Brazilian skateboarder Pedro Barros won a gold medal at the 2010 X Games in Los Angeles.
ESPN’s sales force has identified 14 categories and is looking to secure six to eight sponsors in areas ranging from technology to quick-service restaurant, and beverage to credit card services. Those deals will be complemented by local deals sold by either ESPN’s sales team or the local organizing committee that hosts international X Games events.

The sales structure mirrors the one the International Olympic Committee developed 25 years ago to support the Olympics. The organization sells 10 to 12 worldwide sponsorships in its The Olympic Partner (TOP) program and complements those deals with local sponsorships in select categories sold by organizers of specific Olympics, like the 2012 London Organizing Committee.

ESPN executives are in the process of reviewing 29 bids from 20 cities interested in hosting X Games events. Final bids are due by Jan. 2, and ESPN plans to sign three-year agreements with three cities early next year as X Games summer and winter hosts alongside Los Angeles, Aspen, Colo., and Tignes, France. The new events will join Los Angeles, Aspen and Tignes in 2013, and ESPN is committed to holding six events a year for two years after that.

“We believe there’s a gap in the marketplace for a globally significant, youth-relevant event,” said Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president of programming and X Games for ESPN. “We think that X Games with its history, mainly in the U.S. but also in events around the world like Shanghai, is a great steppingstone to growing this out in a global manner.”

Guglielmino said that the move to convert the X Games into a global property is causing several changes in the way ESPN approaches action sports internally. Historically, the same sales team of 120 people that worked on the NBA, NFL and other properties handled X Games sales and sold the property alongside other ESPN inventory. But the company is hiring a vice president to run X Games sales.

The vice president will report to Eric Johnson, ESPN executive vice president of multimedia sales, but will be a member of a team of senior executives focused on the X Games. Other members of that team include Phil Orlins, coordinating producer; Tori Stevens, vice president of operations for X Games; and Ron Semiao, senior vice president, content development. They will all report to Guglielmino.

“We’re creating a company-wide team at a high, executive level to make sure that as the league and the distributor we’re knocking this out of the park,” Guglielmino said.

Taking X Games global is going to result in other changes to how ESPN approaches the property. Guglielmino said it’s likely that ESPN will move its Web content from espn.com/action to a new, stand-alone website that will be accessible in several languages. He added that the domain name of the site would probably be xgames.com.

The company is considering creating a separate video portal and app for X Games content that would rival WatchESPN. It also is considering adopting a new distribution strategy in some markets that would see it either sell content to broadcast networks or buy time on those networks to further the reach of the property in countries like Brazil and China.

“Everything around the business plan for this involves good content, distribution and revenue,” Johnson said. “We’re going to push the boundaries with this that we’re not normally able to do with an ESPN product because we are the league.”

VIANNEY TISSEAU / ESPN IMAGES
Tignes, France, will see the X Games return; ESPN is reviewing other bids.
As it goes global, ESPN wants to expand the scope and length of the X Games in each market. It wants to turn each event into a lifestyle festival rather than a sports competition, Guglielmino said. In that vein, it is considering creating a film festival for its Summer X Games stop in Los Angeles, adding live performances with more bands, or hosting a surf competition in Brazil.

The lifestyle elements will vary from market to market and reflect the interests in the regions where the events occur, Guglielmino said. Business terms with local organizers will vary, as well.

The date of the events will be finalized after the bids are selected. ESPN plans to make each event a stand-alone X Games, rather than weave them into a series comparable to the NBC-owned Dew Tour.

Most bids to date have come from local or regional sports marketing companies that partner with a city. Some bidders are offering to pay to acquire local sponsorship rights, which they will sell independently, while others are offering ESPN incentives to host an event in their market and letting ESPN retain rights for local sponsorship sales.

“The bid process is about finding the right partners around the world,” Guglielmino said. “Each event will have the X Games DNA but it will look and feel different. It may have different sports. It may have different music.”

Guglielmino said ESPN’s production team will play on that in their coverage of the various events. The company plans to offer 130 hours of X Games television plus countless hours of digital content, and the idea is to approach it the same way that ESPN approached its coverage of the FIFA World Cup from South Africa, where it wove stories about the history and culture of the country into its shoulder programming around the World Cup.

“Imagine, if you will, let’s just say Brazil,” Guglielmino said. “If we were in Brazil, how cool would it be to pick a couple of athletes — say Bob [Burnquist], Pedro [Barros]. How cool would it be to have them be hosts, to tell you what their sports mean to them? That’s where you can really start to have a lot of fun.”

Guglielmino said there is no hard date for selecting the three global host cities for X Games events in 2013. The bids will be judged based on the market, the size of a group’s financial commitment, the appeal of action sports in the region and other factors. His group has already begun visiting cities and evaluating the criteria of submitted bids.

“We’re trying to do as much of that work as up front as we can, so that we can get out there and announce it as quickly as we can,” Guglielmino said. “That will give everybody more time — the sales side, the staging side, the marketing side.”
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