Upfronts 2010: ESPN Upfront Falls Short

If I need to describe my reaction to ESPN’s upfront presentation at the Nokia Theater in New York City Tuesday morning in one word, I would probably go with “confused.” (Click here for complete upfront coverage.)The presentation felt low-energy and given the tremendous assets ESPN has on offer, wasn’t up to the impressive sheer power of ESPN’s uber-brand.

ESPN has a high bar to reach, as it has to live up to some very strong SportsCenter-themed upfronts in years past. And by choosing to dance with the big boys during Upfront Week, it also rightfully gets compared to the presentations of the major broadcast networks — just as Turner will tomorrow.

But by both measures, this year’s SportsNation themed show fell short.

Choosing to highlight an up-and-coming show for the theme is a savvy move, but it flat out did not work. And I mean literally, at least at the start. A touch-screen bit at the open repeatedly held up the presentation when the screen didn’t work, leaving content chief John Skipper and SportsNation hosts Michelle Beadle and Colin Cowherd to wing it.

But in general, the show just had too many people in suits reading off a TelePrompTer, a common theme I heard people saying in the hallways after the show. That’s fine for some networks, but this is ESPN.

Skipper is one of the more likable and funny people in the business, but sticking him up on stage and tying him to a clunky script was not the best use of him, a notion about which he even joked during the show (to several approving murmurs around me). And Cowherd, love him or hate him in his normal role on TV and radio, was absolutely flat and lifeless.

Luckily for Team Bristol, they had Beadle. When I walked into the theater, a member of ESPN’s strong PR staff told me she was a rising star. And he was spot on, as she absolutely carried the show. Often going off-script (which I could see on the prompter from where I was sitting), she was funny and engaging with the audience. You could just tell, if she finds the right shows to work on, she’ll take off. And maybe even end up on Dancing With The Stars.

But it wasn’t just the personalities, which did include fun appearances from Jon Gruden and Jeff Gordon. I was rather confused by what ESPN chose to highlight, and how they did so.

Perhaps by design because sales are so strong for their major properties, the presentation was heavy on trying to build up smaller properties in the ESPN empire.

That’s a sound business strategy in one regard, but it needed to be supported by — and I can’t believe I am about to say this as someone who has bemoaned the volume in televised sports talk and highlights shows in general — more screaming and yelling from ESPN about its major properties.

From the World Cup to the BCS to Monday Night Football, ESPN has plenty to brag about. They simply have an unrivaled lineup. So this upfront needed more highlights, more stars and more cache.

I even think they undersold the hugely-buzzed about 30 for 30 documentary series. I can’t tell you how many people, from friends to high-ranking executives in the business, have asked me whether I saw one episode of the series or another. I feel like people are always talking about the series, literally. That could have come across even more.

In all, as we’ve seen in upfronts past, a subpar presentation doesn’t mean a thing when it comes time to sell ads. Fox’s armory experience followed by a record-setting sales haul taught us all that lesson. And if you’ve never seen an ESPN upfront before, this might have looked great. Plus, I’m sure there were plenty of people who though the presentation was great.

But for me, ESPN has set a bar for itself through its constant quality. And today, it was a victim of its own success.