ESPN is gunning for a bigger mainstream profile, and it is going to start using its sister network, ABC, to get there. The sports giant is planning to simulcast NFL Wild Card coverage on ABC next fall, as well as entwine many of its largest properties, including the radio program "Mike & Mike," the NCAA college football playoffs and the ESPYs, with ABC stalwarts like "Good Morning America" and "New Year’s Rockin’ Eve."
“You'll see us becoming a little more opportunistic with ABC,” ESPN President John Skipper said at a presentation for advertisers in New York City. “We still do have one of the four big broadcast networks, and we're going to continue to take advantage of it."
The Worldwide Leader’s move onto network airwaves makes sense from a ratings standpoint: Airing a playoff game on two channels instead of one gives them a bigger audience to sell to advertisers. “We're competitive guys,” Skipper said. “We want to have the highest-rated playoff game.” That same logic girded the network's decision to air the ESPYs on ABC for the first time, a decision it announced earlier this year. "The ESPYs, we felt, could use a little shot in the arm," Skipper said.
ESPN’s television audience, some 95 million subscribers in the U.S., is still dominated by male sports fans, and it is keen to find partners that can shore up its profile -- and its advertising numbers -- in other demographics. For example, executives from ESPN and ABC pitched the idea of advertising campaigns that might integrate into both "Mike & Mike," which will begin broadcasting from Times Square next year, and "Good Morning America," the top-rated show among women in its time slot. The studios of "Mike & Mike" will literally be upstairs from those of "Good Morning America."
"The Walt Disney Company gives your company an unparalleled opportunity to own the morning,” ABC Ad Sales President Geri Wang said.
ESPN needs these large audiences to defray the costs of live sports programming, which it continues to snap up aggressively, even as the rights packages continue to get more expensive. The company’s operating income in the first two quarters of 2015 declined from previous years, primarily because of programming costs; and on Tuesday, the company announced it will begin airing the U.S. Open tennis championships this summer and the UEFA Cup in 2016.
Later this summer, Skipper said, ESPN will begin negotiating for the rights to broadcast the English Premier League here in the United States as well, which is likely to be expensive. Earlier this year, British broadcasters paid $8 billion for the rights to broadcast EPL in the U.K. for the next three seasons, starting in 2016.
ESPN and ABC have been connected since the 1980s, a time when both companies were owned by the now-defunct Capital Cities Communications, but their involvement with one another was limited. Today, both are majority-owned by the Walt Disney Company, and ESPN effectively functions as ABC Sports. While much of ESPN's presentation focused on the ways that the two channels might work more closely together, Skipper dismissed the idea that this would have a dramatic effect on ESPN's programming or strategy. "It does not portend some dramatic shift in our emphasis," Skipper told reporters. "Our goal is to try and increase the audience."
One way ESPN will compete with ABC is by launching a late-night show at midnight. The show, which will air live and be hosted by anchor Scott Van Pelt, will touch on both sports and pop cultural topics. "We talked about it being our version of late night," said Ed Erhardt, ESPN's president of global marketing. "It will be, in essence, a prime-time late-night show."