Upfront Notebook: Will ESPN’s President Report to the Stage

ESPN’s upfront t presentation was something of a coming out party for the network’s new president, Jimmy Pitaro.

But SportsCenter anchor and annual upfront gadfly Kenny Mayne again provided some comic relief among the sports highlights and sales pitches.

Pitaro was named last month to take over as president for John Skipper who suddenly resigned last year because he was being blackmailed about his cocaine use.

At the top of the show, Mike Greenberg, host of ESPN’s new morning show, was introducing Pitaro when his mike was cut. And out on stage walked Mayne, frayed wire in hand.

“This is our 2018 cord-cutting joke,” Mayne deadpanned. As the new president, “all the money deals run through me now. I just closed a piece of business with a Chinese telecom company. Too soon,” he said, referring to news on the world trade front.

An elevator lowered Mayne from the stage, and an then said “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome the real president of ESPN, Jimmy Pitaro,” who took the stage.

“So I’m still relatively new here but I honestly have no idea what the hell Kenny does other than this upfront thing, he said, before going into his pitch.

“The Walt Disney Company stands for special entertainment with heart and a company where quality is the business model. I’ve always believed that some of the highest quality story telling coming out of the Walt Disney Company comes from right here, ESPN,” Pitaro said.

“Before I took the job here, I was already a lifelong fan. SportsCenter, 30 for 30, College Game Day, I’ve had a personal relationship with this company for many years. He said. “Fast forward to today and no one else has our unique combination of strengths. Growing and diversifying audiences, reach and scale, brand equity and relevance. Award-winning content of course, and as you know, all in a safe, measurable, and brand friendly environment.”

After the upfront, Pitaro met the press in a question and answer session. He was friendly but not particularly forthcoming, particularly with numbers. 

He wouldn't say how many people were using ESPN's new app or subscribing to ESPN+. 

"We're pleased with the number of users that are trying out the app and we're also very pleased with the conversion rate, the number of people that convert from free to the paid experience," he said.

He also denied that ESPN relationship with the NFL was strained, noting that the network was pleased to be airing a playoff game this season.

He also said that with the Supreme Court ruling that gambling was not illegal that it was an area ESPN was monitoring. "The space is very interesting to us, especially from a programming perspective." He would not comment one whether the Disney unit would be interested in getting more directly into the bookmaking business.

During the presentation, ESPN clients Northwestern Life and Coca-Cola talked about how campaigns on ESPN platform’ s helped achieve brand goals.

The network also talked about how advertisers could sponsor a sports moment, one that that becomes a highlight that speeds its way around the world via TV, via digital and via social.

The event also featured other ESPN talent, Kobe Bryant and, the NFL Kelce brothers.

Eventually ESPN let Mayne return to the stage. Here’s what he had to say before shooting off a cannon filled with 2 cent bills from the United States of Kenny with his picture on the front and back.

Look at your minds beyond your love of money. No, really. Look a little further. Or is it farther. Keep going. You’re going to have to go farther than that. Seriously. Is there no end to your thirst for profits. It’s time for intervention.

Look I’m as tired of doing this as you are of coming here. I thought I’d spread a more positive vibe this time around. There’s a lot of negative energy out there in the marketplace. When I say I’m tired of coming here, I don’t mean I’m tired of whoring myself to do commercials for you guys. Big whore.

What I meant is I’m tired of the same old spew. Usually I come here and I mock industry terms. We had big data, right, a couple of years back. Giving up all our personal information so the downside entities can use it to their advantage. When’s that ever gone wrong?

Last year to make the point about the threat of cord-cutting I flew into this fucking place on fishing line no stronger than that needed to haul in a lake trout. I risk my life for this company, they don’t even send me the silver Disney passes any longer.

Our Super Bowl party, Trey Wingo at a Sizzler saying I’ll try to get an extra booth.

They’re watching every penny.

Does anybody have any clue about what the future’s going to bring? ESPN does. ESPN alone has a clear understanding of the nuances and vagaries of the sponsor and media game. Not just this year but next year and in perpetuity throughout the universe. Oh wait, that’s just the contract language one-sided in their favor.

I thought I’d try something different. 90 minutes of hot yoga. You guys just change where you are. Let’s do this. Let’s hear it for Brad. Turn up the heat to 140.

I’m going to get into a zen mindset. I’m going to read one of those yoga stories they do in Yoga. Couples yoga 830 Friday. It’s cool if you don’t have a partner. No judgment.

Close your eyes or open them. As I climbed the last 500 feet of Mount Ranier I was never more alive. My heart and lungs were as one, though each continued to perform its intended function. I was gbreathing and had great blood flow is what I mean by that.

I looked at the perfect creation before me and I envisioned how some 30 second spots could be repurposed into 15s and run on autoplay on the ESPN app. Namaste. Find your authentic self, even if you have to lie to yourself to find it.Maybe your problems run deeper than this class. OK yoga sucks, whatever.

Whatever happened to real exercise? Back when nobody needed skinny bundles. Skinny bundles don’t actually make you skinny. Advertising in Monday Night Football does that.

So work it out people. I was going to hire five athletic guys, but we could only afford one so I got the people with the Trey Wingo party and here they are. Let’s get physical. Breathe in breathe out.

No seriously, keep breathing.

Fewer ads for 70% more money is a good thing, NBC says. Now run in place. Run fast. Run faster. Faster. This is how fast NBC is running from that statement.

If thing go bad for me here I have no problem with NBC. We’re cool. That joke came from way up above.

Now bend over touch your toes. OK, this is too gratuitous, stop we’re done.

Who are we kidding? All anybody cares about in this room is money. So let’s bring out the cannons and make it precipitate. Let’s make it rain.

It cost $17,000 to make these stupid things.

Hold on. I have one more thing to say. It’s not about how you spend that money that I just gave you. You’re going to spend it on programmatic? What the hell is programmatic anyway? You guys spend the whole year making up new words. This is real life people. We’re not all super fit. We’re not all super smart. We’re not super anything. We’re just regular people, sitting in room in a theater where a lion dies. And another lion is a total dick and tries to take over the pride. And then the good lions band together and everybody cries but out of happiness. That’s what this is about, why we’re here together.

We could be torn apart by lions at any minute. OK. But we’re not going to let that shit happen. We’re going to stick together. Whatever the market and society throws at us, we’re going to beat it. I don’t know how the hell we’re going to do it but believe me I’ll be working on it.

OK I’ll be over here. I’m out.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.