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Volume 23 No. 1
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Network positioning ESPN2 as stand-alone channel

ESPN executives are frustrated that the ad sales community has not been valuing ESPN2 as a stand-alone channel as much as Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network.

The frustration led ESPN’s ad sales division to position “The Deuce” as the place for big personalities, big opinions and big TV ratings. For at least the past four months, ESPN has been pitching the 21-year-old ESPN2 as its own stand-alone channel, rather than as an overflow channel for ESPN. Their focus has been on ESPN2’s daytime schedule, from “Mike & Mike” in the morning to Dan LeBatard and Keith Olbermann in the late afternoon.

“In a lot of the articles written about the anniversary of FS1, the channel is compared to NBC Sports Network and ESPN,” said Eric Johnson, ESPN’s executive vice president of global multimedia sales. “In none of the stories that I read did ESPN2 come up as a point of reference. We know that over the course of the year, ESPN2 still is doing double the rating of some of those. We’re trying to make sure that we sell to advertisers that ESPN2 is the second-ranked sports cable network that exists.”

From September 2013 to August 2014, ESPN2 averaged 271,000 total day viewers (Monday to Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.). By comparison, NBC Sports Network averaged 92,000 viewers, and Fox Sports 1 averaged 59,000 viewers.

“In my mind, [Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network] are competing with ESPN2,” Johnson added. “And they’re not winning.”

Thanks largely to the new positioning, ESPN2 has added nine new advertisers “in major positions,” Johnson said. “We have a couple of dozen advertisers who had big positions and increased their investment in it.”

ESPN would not identify the new advertisers. But some in the ad buying community said it’s smart for ESPN to position ESPN2 as its own channel.

“The reality is that ESPN2 is the No. 2 sports network by a long shot,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director at Optimum Sports, a sports marketing and media agency. “The other guys aren’t close, especially when you talk about studio programming.”

Carey said he does not target ESPN2 specifically. Rather his company makes an ESPN buy that gets applied to all ESPN networks — just as a Fox broadcast buy would include Fox Sports 1 and an NBC broadcast buy would include NBC Sports Network.

It’s hard to change the perception of a channel based solely on daytime programming, especially when its popular programming — live and in prime time — is produced across ESPN’s network.

“I don’t think they’re out there developing ESPN2 fans,” Carey said.

Industry executives say ESPN2 won’t be able to truly establish its own identity until it carries exclusive live content that’s not available on ESPN.

“Fox Sports 1 has MLB postseason games coming up, and NBC Sports Network has the EPL and NHL,” said David Bank, managing director of equity research for RBC Capital Markets. “What does ESPN2 have?”

ESPN’s effort to differentiate ESPN2 started in May at the network’s upfront event in New York City. Several ESPN2 personalities, including Keith Olbermann and the “First Take” cast, appeared on stage with the same message.

“All this time, ESPN has been the No. 1 sports network, the No. 1 brand in sports,” Olbermann told the crowd of ad buyers. “And the No. 2 sports network? The No. 2 brand in sports? ESPN2.”

“First Take” host Stephen A. Smith had a similar message, describing ESPN2 as “the home for people who are big on personality, deep on analysis and wide on opinion.”

Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming, said the move is part of a longer-term plan to distinguish ESPN2 from ESPN.

“The litmus test for me is, are they doing too much of the similar execution — whether it’s in content, people, style, delivery, look,” he said.