Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


ESPN began in the late 1970s as the first 24-hour cable channel devoted exclusively to sports news and the airing of such minor sports as Australian Rules football and tractor pulls. By the 1990s, however, it was a powerhouse ready to extend its brand in every direction, including internationally. On the domestic side, a radio network was launched in 1992; a second cable channel, ESPN2, made its debut in 1993; and a website was introduced in 1995. Then in the fall of 1996 ESPN launched its third cable channel, ESPNews, a 24-hour sports-news service. ESPN hired ad agency Ground Zero to develop a new television and print campaign to promote the channel. The result was an effort titled ‘‘The Rick.’’ The Rick was a fictional obsessive sports fan who rarely left a bedroom bedecked with all manner of memorabilia. Based on a composite of real-life fans, The Rick embodied the dedication of ESPNews to the minutiae of the sports world. In the television spots the character often showed off his collection of sports memorabilia, including sports figurines, which he insisted were vital artifacts and not mere dolls.
Although it was difficult to say how much of a role ‘‘The Rick’’ played, ESPNews outlived its main competition, CNN-SI, which failed to achieve high enough ratings and was taken off the air. The Rick himself, while not especially well received by critics, was popular with ESPN’s core audience. The character was brought back to promote the ESPN website as well as the ESPY Awards, a sports-award show organized by and aired on ESPN.

A new era in televised sports began on September 7, 1979, when ESPN, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, went on the air. Backed by $10 million in start-up money from Getty Oil, the network was the brainchild of William F. Rasmussen, a broadcaster whose original idea was to televise school sports in Connecticut. ESPN’s employees initially numbered about 75, and the network was available in some 1.4 million American homes.
The first program telecast, and to this day the centerpiece of ESPN programming, was SportsCenter, the network’s daily wrap-up of sports news. Its success enabled ESPN to begin broadcasting around the clock on September 1, 1980. With few live events to cover, the network relied on a hodgepodge of monster-truck shows, tractor pulls, Australian Rules football, and business programming to keep viewers entertained. Although advertiser interest remained tepid, on May 31, 1981, ESPN reached the 10-million subscriber plateau, an important milestone for a start-up network.
The next three years were a period of exponential growth for ESPN. By August 1983 the network had 28.5 million subscribers and had surpassed Turner Broadcasting’s WTBS to become the largest cable network in America. The next year ESPN acquired its first major sports programming, college football. ‘‘That was the first property we had that the networks wanted,’’ said Steve Bornstein, the chief executive officer of ESPN. Also in 1984, ABC Video Enterprises bought ESPN from Texaco, which had taken over Getty Oil. ESPN concluded the year with its first profitable quarter and became available in all 50 U.S. states.
In 1985 Capital Cities Inc. bought ABC and acquired ESPN for $237.5 million. In July of that year the ticker known as Sports Update, which offered scores and news flashes on the half hour, made its debut as 28/ 58. Continuing to pursue football, the big game of sports programming, ESPN in 1987 inked a first-of-its-kind cable deal with the National Football League (NFL), allowing it to televise 13 games per season. Later that year ESPN became the first cable network to reach 50 percent of American homes with television, some 43.7 million households. ESPN International was launched in 1988, and within 10 years it was sending American sports worldwide, with broadcasts in 14 languages. Major league baseball joined the ESPN roster in 1989.
In 1991, in its 12th year, ESPN went to an all-sports format, dropping the morning program Nation’s Business Today in favor of rebroadcasts of SportsCenter. On January 1, 1992, the ESPN Radio Network was introduced, offering 16 hours a week of sports news, commentary, and information. Reflecting a trend toward round-the-clock coverage of sports news, the ESPN Phone Update was introduced in 1993. The 900-number service offered scores, news, and information 24 hours a day. In October 1993 ESPN expanded its family of television networks domestically for the first time when ESPN2, or ‘‘the Deuce’’ as it was known, became available to some 10 million households. The new network offered programming similar to that of ESPN but with a more youthful orientation and a commitment to covering alternative, or ‘‘extreme,’’ sports.
In 1995 ‘‘ESPNet SportsZone’’ (later ‘‘ESPN SportsZone’’) was launched on the World Wide Web. This sports resource quickly emerged as one of the mostvisited content sites on the Internet, setting a record for usage by registering a high point of 21.6 million hits in one day a year after it was introduced. Also in 1995 ESPN India went on the air, becoming ESPN’s 16th network outside the United States. Commentary was provided in English and Hindi. By this time ESPN programming could be heard in 14 languages worldwide. In the United States ESPN could now boast of reaching 70 percent of homes with television, the first U.S. cable network to achieve this level of penetration. Total subscribers had reached 67.1 million.
Impressed by the network’s development and the potential for further growth, the Walt Disney Company in 1996 bought ESPN, thus forging a partnership between Disney-owned ABC and the cable network. In the autumn of 1996 ESPNews—the 24-hour all-sports news network—was launched. Five charter advertisers quickly signed on: Coors Brewing Co., General Motors Corp., Levi Strauss & Co., McDonald’s Corp., and Procter & Gamble Co. Several of the companies already advertised heavily on ESPN and ESPN2. ESPNews hired 11 new anchors for the network, adopting a format of consecutive 30-minute programs throughout the day. It replayed ESPN’s showpiece SportsCenter program each night and featured ESPN commentators such as Peter Gammons on baseball and Chris Mortenson on the NFL. ESPN2 was used to help expose ESPNews to a wider audience by carrying the service between periods in its hockey coverage and at halftime during college basketball games.
At the end of the 1990s the ESPN family of networks, publications (including ESPN the Magazine, a biweekly publication that first appeared in March 1998), and services seemed poised for continued growth. Estimates of the value of ESPN and ESPN2 ranged as high as $5 billion, or about one-quarter of the $19 billion Disney had paid for the entire ABC-Capital Cities empire. By 1999 ESPN, the ‘‘mother network,’’ was reaching 73 million, or almost 75 percent, of all homes with television in the United States as well as more than 90 million worldwide. This impressive level of market penetration allowed ESPN to aggressively crosspromote its other networks, including the infant ESPNews.

‘‘The Rick’’ targeted one of advertising’s most coveted demographic groups: young men. These viewers were increasingly tuning out mainstream network television fare in favor of specialized programming geared to their interests, such as that found on ESPN and ESPNews. ‘‘Male viewers are continuing to be difficult to target in prime time,’’ observed Larry Goodman, president of news sales for Turner Broadcasting. ‘‘For concentrated male viewership, in general, you have to look at cable.’’
Fortunately for sports news networks such as
ESPNews, this male demographic group had few places to turn to in the market. ‘‘There’s such a shortage of male viewers in broadcast network prime time that any branded network specializing in the 25–54 demo is always going to be valuable,’’ said Goodman.

Although it was the first 24-hour all-sports news network, ESPNews was soon joined by a formidable competitor, CNN-SI, a joint venture of CNN, the Cable News Network, and Sports Illustrated magazine. A third major player in cable sports programming, Fox Sports Net, emerged in the late 1990s as a challenger to ESPNews sister network ESPN.
The networks shared many characteristics, but for the purpose of capturing the interest of viewers, they tended to emphasize their differences. Jim Walton, CNN senior vice president in charge of CNN-SI, saw the ‘‘hard news’’ cachet implicit in the CNN brand as the principal point of differentiation. In an interview soon after CNN-SI’s launch, he was quick to point out that the satellite system PrimeStar had placed the network in two different areas of its service: news and sports. Nevertheless, Walton was not sure that the point was getting across to consumers. As he said in comparing his product with ESPNews, ‘‘I see us as different, but I don’t know if consumers perceive us differently.’’ All three of the networks exerted considerable promotional muscle in their efforts to win the allegiance of sports-obsessed consumers. CNN-SI relied on Sports Illustrated as a built-in weekly promotional vehicle. ESPN and Fox aggressively advertised their services and programming with on-air and off-network promos. By the end of the 1990s all three of the networks remained viable, despite the suspicion in some quarters that the sports segment had become saturated. While no ratings data were available for CNN-SI and ESPNews, the networks reportedly boasted cable subscribers of 1 million and 1.5 million, respectively, minuscule numbers by cable standards but worth fighting over in the eyes of programmers and marketing officials.

ESPNews conceived of its fictional spokescharacter in the ‘‘Rick’’ advertisements as ‘‘the most knowledgeable sports fan in the history of the universe.’’ He was an obsessive collector of everything related to sports, from a mouth guard belonging to hockey star Eric Lindros to a jar of pickle juice that Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan had used to prevent blisters on his fingers. As an exaggerated representation of the hard-core sports aficionado, the character was designed to reflect the target audience of ESPNews.
Television spots for the ‘‘Rick’’ campaign were directed by Christopher Guest of bicoastal Moxie Pictures. A veteran comic actor and director, Guest was best known for his work on NBC’s Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980s. He also cowrote and costarred in the 1983 cult comedy hit This Is Spinal Tap. The creative team at ad agency Ground Zero consisted of creative directors Court Crandall and Kirk Souder, art director Guy Shelmerdine, copywriter Steve O’Brien, and agency producer Patricia Phelan. To play the part of The Rick, Crandall recruited a college friend, Boston-born Mike O’Malley, a rising actor with a number of credits on his resume, including a stint as a host of the Nickelodeon game show Guts.
The campaign was the brainchild of copywriter O’Brien. Relying on memories of his youth growing up in New England, he based the character depicted in the ‘‘Rick’’ commercials on his brother Pat and a group of sports-obsessed friends who, like ESPNews, prided themselves on always knowing the latest scores and all manner of minutiae. As a model for the character’s cluttered bedroom, O’Brien envisioned his brother’s old bedroom, its shelves crammed full of sports memorabilia. ‘‘We blew it out to the next level,’’ O’Brien said, commenting on the real-life basis for the obsessive character. ‘‘We imagined a kid who is really, really into sports and kept growing in that knowledge and adding to his room until he had this awesome collection of sports-related items.’’ A sports fan in his own right, O’Brien also drew on himself for inspiration. At one point he brought some of his sports figurines into the Ground Zero offices and conducted fanciful ‘‘interviews’’ with them, as if he were a television broadcaster. In one of the ‘‘Rick’’ spots the spokescharacter did the same thing.
The other spots in the ‘‘Rick’’ campaign followed a similar pattern. In one the character proudly displayed a basketball net obtained for $15 from the grounds crew at North Carolina State University. In another he again trotted out his collection of sports figurines, this time to defend them as vital artifacts, ‘‘not toys, not dolls.’’ In a third spot he played with a set of racing cars, defending his sports hobbies while dismissing other pastimes, such as reading Franz Kafka, whose story The Metamorphosis he erroneously described as concerning a man who turned into a cocker spaniel.
In 1998 The Rick was enlisted to promote, replacing a character called Net Boy who was not popular enough to retain after a website of the same name lodged a legal challenge. But The Rick’s popularity also played a role. According to ESPN ad director Alex Kaminsky, quoted in Brandweek, ‘‘our audience related so well to ‘The Rick,’ that we really thought it was time to put him back into prime time.’’ The new spots included The Rick demonstrating the versatility of ‘‘Rickwear,’’ an Astroturf jacket that could double as a practice putting green. In another execution The Rick tried to convince ESPN to partner on a joint venture, ‘‘the official website of The Rick.’’ In 2004 ESPN brought back The Rick once again, this time to promote the ESPN sports-awards program the ESPYs. Wearing his usual Boston sports garb, The Rick offered to trade used nasal strips worn by NFL players for tickets to the ESPYs.

‘‘The Rick’’ was recognized with a number of advertisingindustry awards, a sign that it had accomplished the goal of breaking through the clutter of sports commercials. For the spot ‘‘Slot Cars—Scenarios,’’ Ground Zero in 1998 won the 32nd annual Belding Award for the top low-budget commercial from the Advertising Club of Los Angeles. In 1999 Ground Zero was awarded the Belding Bowl for an ESPNews package made up of two TV spots, ‘‘Colors’’ and ‘‘Big Heads—Little Bodies,’’ and a print ad entitled ‘‘The Rick, Rosin.’’
Not all reviewers reacted favorably to the campaign, however. Some did not find the spots to be funny and even thought that they were a bit unsavory. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, ad critic Denise Gellene observed, ‘‘In these spots, aimed at sports fans and cable programmers alike, The Rick comes off as a genuine sportsaholic. But his obsession lacks the zany quality of sports fanatics depicted in ads for other ESPN services. It seems The Rick needs to get a life—or at least a shower.’’ Despite the critics, The Rick was popular with ESPN’s target audience, and the campaign played its part in successfully launching ESPNews. CNN-SI, in the meantime, failed to catch on and was ultimately dropped. When ESPN tapped The Rick to promote the ESPYs, ESPN received some of the best ratings it had experienced in several years for the program. ‘‘The Rick’’ campaign also helped to advance the acting career of O’Malley. He starred in the disastrous sitcom The Mike O’Malley Show, which was cancelled after two episodes in 1999, but found sitcom success as the star of the CBS sitcom Yes, Dear, which debuted in 2000. O’Malley also landed roles in such films as Pushing Tin and 28 Days.

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