Novel programmatic advertising on ‘SportsCenter’ a calculated gamble by ESPN


Credit: Rich Arden / ESPN Images
Credit: Rich Arden / ESPN Images

ESPN has launched its new technologically advanced SportsCenter set, and the company is now putting its new technology to use to increase revenue. ESPN will start selling programmatic advertising in-show on its giant video wall in January. When fans tune in to watch highlights, they may get an advertisement outside the typical commercial break.

The strategy has benefits and drawbacks. One obvious benefit is increased revenue. ESPN has created another way to sell advertisements and therefore creates an ancillary revenue stream. It’s a win-win for ESPN. If they sell the spot, great. If not, it’s just 30 more seconds of typical SportsCenter programming.

Not only that, but the hope is that the viewer is more engaged with the advertising. During commercials, viewers disengage. They check their phones, go to the refrigerator, or just stop paying attention. Through programmatic ads inside the show, the viewer is almost forced to pay attention. This brings better ROI for the advertiser and can fetch a hefty price for ESPN. It also creates a situation where the advertisements are almost DVR-proof. With advertising in-show, people won’t fast forward through the ads.

There are drawbacks. Viewers don’t like feeling advertisements are pushed on them. There could be backlash from fans who just want to see the highlights, not get sold Bud Light Platinum. There is always a balancing act when providing content and selling advertisements.

SportsCenter was designed as a news/information/highlight show. As it sells ads in-show, it could lose part of its reputation as a news provider, especially if fans see this move as ESPN being a corporate shill. It’s up to ESPN to make the balancing act work. Social media has already made fun of product placement and sponsored segments, and this is just another target for the anti-ESPN crowd.

ESPN is taking a chance here, but it could change advertisements for its programming. Especially if ESPN can take a page out of the internet playbook and work with its partners to create specific content around the in-show advertising. People don’t like feeling as if they are being sold something, so if ESPN and advertisers can make it feel more like content, it might work for everyone.

Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.

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