ESPN says ad sales still strong despite increased competition

Despite competition from Fox and NBC, ESPN says it has not seen its sports advertising get any smaller

Despite increased competition from Fox and NBC, ESPN says it has not seen its piece of the sports advertising pie get any smaller.

"I can't say we sense they are taking dollars from us in particular," said Ed Erhardt, ESPN's president of sales when asked about the impact of Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network on the advertising marketplace.

ESPN, a unit of Walt Disney Co., presented its media empire to advertisers Tuesday morning in advance of the so-called upfront market where the majority of commercial inventory is sold.

Erhardt, who has headed ad sales for ESPN for 15 years, said the sports pie overall is growing because advertisers are willing to pay a premium for live viewing. Unlike entertainment programming, most sports viewing is still done live and not recorded for later consumption.

"The whole category has exploded," Erhardt said.

ESPN is banking on that trend continuing. It is constantly adding new channels and platforms. This summer, it will launch the SEC Network, a channel devoted to the popular Southeastern Conference. The network launches in August, although it is still lacking several major distributors, including DirecTV.

"Hopefully we'll have full distribution," said ESPN Chief Executive John Skipper. The biggest distributor to agree to carry the channel is satellite broadcaster Dish Network, which has about 14 million subscribers.

Asked about NBC's $7.75-billion deal to keep the Olympics through 2032, Skipper said ESPN would have been interested in making a run for the Games but added there would have been a "significant gap" between the bids of the two companies.

ESPN also said it had signed "Pardon the Interruption" hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser to long-term deals. "PTI," which runs every afternoon, is one of ESPN's most popular shows.

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