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Volume 21 No. 43


Dwyane Wade will pitch the Disney film “Solo” during ESPN’s coverage of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. In a spot produced by ESPN’s in-house ad agency CreativeWorks, Wade and the “Star Wars” character Chewbacca walk down a tunnel in an NBA arena. A voice-over says, “Who’s your co-pilot? Tune into the Eastern Conference Finals and see ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story.’”

The spot has the same look and feel as the ESPN commercial starring Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during the first round of the NBA playoffs for the Universal movie “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” Or the one with ESPN on-air personalities such as Jalen Rose during the second round that hyped the Warner Bros. movie “Ocean’s 8.”

Over on Turner, the “Inside the NBA” crew — Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson — have starred in commercials hawking Hulu during TNT’s playoff games this year.

ESPN’s CreativeWorks put together a “Star Wars” promo and has taken over development of the “This is SportsCenter” campaign.
Photo: espn

NBA viewers have been seeing more of these types of commercials this season, and they should expect to see even more in coming years. The reason: ESPN and Turner have in-house creative units to develop such ads and both see these parts of their businesses growing.

“We develop some of our biggest work during the NBA Finals and NBA playoffs,” said Carrie Brzezinski-Hsu, vice president of ESPN CreativeWorks and marketing. “At CreativeWorks, we made that shift from an agency inside a media company to really starting to make ourselves look like an actual traditional creative agency.”

The idea of media companies having their own in-house agency is not new. CBS has Studio 61, NBC has the Content Innovation Agency and Viacom has Velocity.

But ESPN’s CreativeWorks and Turner’s Turner Ignite Sports focus on sports. And during upfront presentations this week, the work of these in-house agencies will be highlighted.

At ESPN’s upfront on Tuesday, for example, ESPN will show new virtual ways that allow advertisers to push their brands and messages outside of a traditional 30-second spot — akin to what executives describe as “tombstone units” that virtually rise up from the field during ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” telecast.

“Unlike a traditional agency, because we’re embedded in ESPN, we can pitch out these really cool things,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “A lot of our clients don’t really live and breathe sports the way we do, so they’re timid about getting into sports creative. But they know that in order to reach this audience, they want to be as relevant as possible and speak their language and be in the inside joke with them.”

ESPN executives see this business as a big growth opportunity for a group that already seems big.

CreativeWorks is staffed by 85 people — a combination of creative directors, designers, writers, producers and project managers. Last year, the group produced 125 long- and short-form videos, 175 ad partner campaigns and 100 ESPN-branded campaigns. It is the group that developed the ESPN+ logo.

Notably, it took over the development of ESPN’s “This Is SportsCenter” campaign from ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. So far it has produced two “This Is SportsCenter” commercials that have the same look and feel as the ones produced by Wieden. One stars Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, the other Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Photo: espn

“We think we can mobilize the campaign quicker and across our platform more seamlessly,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “You’ll start to see it come to life beyond the television creative in smart ways.”

Bringing the “This Is SportsCenter” campaign in-house underscores CreativeWorks’ move to become more of a full-service ad agency, as opposed to a creative agency, which is how it started, she said. She sees a trend of advertisers moving away from using larger agencies of record in favor of using smaller ones.

“Some of that business is going to independent shops, and some of it is going to partners inside media companies like ourselves,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “They are not only looking for cost savings. They are looking for native advertising opportunities — understanding that they want us to do their sports work versus a big agency of record doing everything. … We’re positioning ourselves as a sports agency of record.”

ESPN launched CreativeWorks in 2010 to find unique ways to get advertisers closer to the games. One of its first deals was with GMC, which was a presenting sponsor of “Monday Night Football” at that time.

“But they wanted to take a step further and really show off their brand,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “One of those first pieces of creative was when someone pulled into a cul-de-sac of a neighborhood, every neighbor had a GMC truck. The horns started to play the ‘Monday Night Football’ theme. It was relevant to their sponsorship and the video cut to a card that said, ‘Monday Night Football sponsored by GMC Trucks.’”

Another early campaign was with Samsung, which was promoting an HDTV set in 2010. Samsung’s creative agency developed a campaign that demonstrated the clarity of the HD picture.

“We said, ‘Let’s make that about a boyfriend and girlfriend watching football, and she’s got all the knowledge about fantasy sports,’” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “We celebrated the TV. But we were putting it in the language of a sports fan.”

Movie studios have targeted the NBA playoffs to promote their summer blockbusters and have used CreativeWorks to develop the ads. ESPN sold round-by-round exclusivity: Universal in the first round, Warner Bros. in the second, Disney in the third and Sony in the finals.

“The movie studio will tell us the film and whether they have film talent available,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “If not, we need an athlete or our talent to really pull the weight of the film. Then we have to figure out — What are the sports moments that really inform the creative? What are the sports moments that best align with the film? How do we make that marriage for the fan so that it feels relevant and fun?”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

It’s hard to imagine ESPN without the steady hand of Christine Driessen guiding the company’s financial decisions.

Last week, Driessen announced her retirement — effective in January — after 33 years of holding down one of the toughest jobs in sports. Driessen usually was the only woman in the room as ESPN executives debated multibillion-dollar decisions. Her opinions, and the financial models she drew up, regularly were heeded by the group.

Driessen speaks at SBJ’s Game Changers event.
Photo: marc bryan-brown

The last time I heard Driessen speak publicly was in September, at SportsBusiness Journal’s Game Changers event in New York. During her talk, she was reflective about her distinguished career. At one point, SBJ’s Abe Madkour asked her to talk about the lessons she learned over the years. Her answers are worth repeating.

“Speak concisely. Effective communication as you grow your career is critical. If you walk into a room and you start talking and you don’t have an audience listening to you, stop. It’s amazing what happens when you stop talking.”

“Don’t get caught in the trap of speaking just to be speaking. It’s important to speak up, but you need to have a point of view that makes sense and is worthy for an audience to listen to.”

“In the passion of negotiation, sometimes you get so personally involved that you need to step back and remember why you are there. Keep calm. If there’s a critical issue and strong disagreements, just take a break.”

ESPN’s network group took home 10 awards from last week’s 39th annual Sports Emmys, including trophies for weekly studio show (“College GameDay”) and studio host (Bob Ley).


CBS Sports’ Gary Danielson, Craig Silver, Allie LaForce and Brad Nessler
Photo: jerry caraccioli / cbs sports

CBS, which won a network-leading eight awards, was honored in five categories for its coverage of the New England Patriots’ comeback victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game and won for live sports special with the 118th Army-Navy Game. 


Bob Ley, ESPN
Photo: espn images

The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Lifetime Achievement Award went to IMG Media’s Barry Frank. As a rights negotiator, event creator and talent agent, Frank negotiated rights fees for multiple Olympic Games, created popular programming ranging from “The Superstars” to “The Skins Game,” and helped nurture the careers of such television talent as John Madden, Jim Nantz and Mike Tirico. 

A coalition of networks, led by Univision, was honored with the Chairman’s Award for their response to natural disasters last year in Texas, Florida, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

Winners from the 39th Sports Emmy Awards, announced May 8 in New York City

Outstanding Live Sports Special: The 118th Army-Navy Game, CBS 

Outstanding Live Sports Series: “Sunday Night Football,” NBC

Mike “Doc” Emrick, NBC / NBCSN
Photo: getty images

Outstanding Studio Show, Weekly: “College GameDay,” ESPN

Outstanding Studio Show, Daily: “MLB Tonight,” MLB Network

Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio Host: Bob Ley, ESPN

Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio Analyst: Harold Reynolds, MLB Network

Outstanding Sports Personality, Sports Event Analyst: Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN/ABC

Fox Sports’ Kevin Burkhardt, John Entz, Alex Rodriguez, Bardia Shah-Rais
Photo: fox sports

Outstanding Sports Personality, Sports Reporter: Tom Verducci, MLB Network/Fox

Outstanding Sports Personality, Play-by-Play: Mike “Doc” Emrick, NBC/NBCSN

The Dick Schaap Outstanding Writing Award: AFC Championship, “Teasing John Malkovich,” CBS

Outstanding Studio Show, Limited Run: “MLB on Fox, The Postseason” Fox / FS1


Initial bids for Sports Illustrated, a longtime powerhouse of American sports media, were due last Friday, signaling once more the tectonic shifts in how sports fan consume information and the steady decline of SI.


Meredith Corp. formally acquired the 64-year-old SI in January as part of its far larger acquisition of Time Inc. But it quickly moved to resell the now-stepchild sports title, as that Time Inc. purchase was predicated on acquiring larger and more profitable magazine titles such as People. Meredith is also now reselling Time, Fortune and Money, and in March announced its intent to focus less on weekly magazines or those targeted primarily to men.

Reportedly, Meredith wants between $100 million and $150 million for SI and that may be a stretch. Gone are the days when the magazine arrived fat with advertising and it served as a dominant voice in the sports world. SI this year reduced its print frequency to biweekly, down from 38 issues in 2017, after publishing for nearly its entire existence as a weekly magazine.

Two of the publication’s key revenue drivers have been the annual Swimsuit Issue and the respected veteran football writer Peter King, creator of the popular Monday Morning Quarterback column that morphed into a larger football-centric website. Whether the Swimsuit Issue can now survive the current #MeToo era is an open question, and this year’s edition sought to frame itself around a theme of female empowerment, while SI in recent years has also built the issue into a larger initiative with experiential events.


King, meanwhile, will depart June 1 for a full-time role with NBC Sports after 29 years at SI.

“The departure of key staffers is never good in a sales process and always gives buyers a reason to pause and rethink a deal,” said Reed Phillips, managing partner at Oaklins DeSilva + Phillips, where he specializes in media investment banking.

Most magazines sell at a multiple of between five and six times cash flow, Phillips said. SI, he estimated, has cash flow of about $20 million, though he cautioned it could be less.

One banker who had a client considering an offer for SI said he had heard a pro sports team owner might be a possible buyer. That would be in keeping with an emerging trend in print media whereby high-net-worth individuals are increasingly acquiring venerated titles, the most prominent example of which may be Amazon Chairman Jeff Bezos’ 2013 purchase of The Washington Post.

The SI sale is being managed by Chris Russo, managing director of Houlihan Lokey. Russo declined to comment. But he played a key role earlier this year aiding Meredith in its sale of Time Inc. properties Golf magazine and to former New York Islanders owner Howard Milstein and Emigrant Capital, giving him a familiarity with Meredith leadership and their intentions. Financial terms of the deal for Golf magazine and were not disclosed, but some industry estimates hovered around $15 million.

A deal for SI is anticipated by the end of June.

YES Network has seen a sizable jump in live streaming audiences for New York Yankees games so far this season, an indicator of the rising fan interest in the club.


The RSN, majority owned by 21st Century Fox, has surpassed 1 million minutes in streaming consumption for 16 of its first 30 Yankees game broadcasts this season, as well as 10 of the last 13 games through May 9. The YES Network hit that mark only four times during the entire 2017 season, with the first such occurrence on Aug. 18. 

Digital growth is outpacing Yes Network’s linear broadcasts this season.
Photo: getty images

Specific figures for average per-game streaming audiences or consumption were not disclosed. But the network said its per-game average for minutes streamed is up 116 percent compared to 2017, and its unique per-game audience is up 52 percent. The Yankees’ 3-2 victory against the Boston Red Sox on May 8 set a record for the most minutes streamed for any individual Yankees game on YES.

The digital growth outpaces the strong start to the season for YES Network for its linear broadcasts, where its average April rating in the New York market of 3.71 was up 9 percent from last year and marked the best beginning to a Yankees season since 2012.

YES Network’s streaming figures represent some of the first aggregated numbers publicly released since the arrival in 2016 of authenticated in-market streaming in baseball through Fox RSNs after several years of negotiation. Live in-market game streaming within baseball did not hit critical mass until last year with the arrival of the NBC Sports and AT&T Sports Networks RSNs and NESN last year. Twenty-seven of 30 MLB clubs now offer the service.

“We’re seeing the streaming really becoming a habit and a fundamental part of the viewers’ daily consumption patterns,” said Jon Litner, YES Network president, who referenced the Yankees’ recent run that had seen them win 17 of 18 games through May 9. “Fans have continued to rally around this team, and the digital growth we’ve had is one of the clearest indicators of that,” he added.

YES Network is also seeing significant growth around its streaming-specific sponsorships, with revenue up 40 percent from last year thanks in part to the arrival of companies such as T-Mobile, MillerCoors, Lexus and Apple.