ESPN WAS PERCEIVED AS A MICKEY-MOUSE SPORTS NETWORK...UNTIL AMERICA’S GREATEST ATHLETES SHOVED ESPN IN YOUR FACE! (GRATIS!)
Rodney Dangerfield’s famous line,“I don’t get any respect,” had been precisely the insurmountable problem for ESPN, the 24-hour sports cable network. Even the announcement of my agency’s appointment in Adweek, an advertising trade paper, took a below-the-belt shot at ESPN: “Lois will become familiar with aerobics and Demolition Derbies!” (A snide way to repeat the popular perception that ESPN was basically broadcasting junk sports.)
To convince America that ESPN was indeed a dominant force in TV sports, I went nose to nose with their management to let me produce an in-your-face campaign. The ESPN honcho guffawed when I showed him a list of 15 of America’s hottest sports personalities, insisting I could convince many to appear in the commercials...for zilch. “Lois, not one of them would cross the street for less than $50,000!” he barked. But I cajoled them all, and then some, including Roger Clemens, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly, Eric Davis, Boomer Esiason, Bobby Bonilla, Greg Norman, Gabriella Sabatini, Andre Reed, Darryl Strawberry, Dan Marino, John Elway, Bruce Smith, Richard Dent, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long, Marcus Allen, Warren Moon and coaches Mike Ditka, Joe Paterno and Rick Pitino. Because I knew two things they didn’t know: ESPN had the possibility of becoming a giant and they hadn’t scratched the surface...and an athlete is a sucker to appear in a TV spot if you can make them look like a million bucks!
The results of the campaign were, in the words of an ESPN executive, a “Harvard Business School case study on how to turn around a company’s image.” ESPN sold out their Major League Baseball, NFL football and NCAA basketball (after a decade of cut-rate sales) and a few months after the campaign broke, a research tracking study showed ESPN suddenly going from worst to first, rating ahead of ABC, CBS and NBC, as having the best sports programming in America.
They went on to implement a creative marketing plan that they thought was a pipe dream on my part. I recommended an ESPN 2. “You nuts, Lois? We don’t have enough programming to fill ESPN!” I told them an ESPN magazine was a no-brainer. “Ridiculous, Lois. We’re not journalists!” And among a host of licensing possibilities, I expounded about some kind of ESPN Sports Hotel and/or Sports Bar. With their newfound In Your Face imagery, they went on to do it all, and then some. The same way I used Rock stars to save MTV, In Your Face athletes transformed a mickey-mouse network into the Power Network of Sports!