ESPN’s plan for NFL lockout is no plan; aggressive Olympics bid in works

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A top ESPN executive told advertisers Tuesday he knows how the National Football League labor dispute will end.

‘They’re going to play,’ said John Skipper, the cable sports empire’s executive vice president of content. He then added wryly, ‘I don’t know when they’re going to play, but when they do we’ll carry it.’


All kidding aside, the battle between the NFL owners and players over a new collective bargaining agreement has cast a cloud over all the TV networks that count on football for big ratings and ad dollars. Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, which carries ‘Monday Night Football,’ has a lot at stake.

Skipper, a candid executive, said there is no secret plan to replace ‘Monday Night Football’ should the regular season be delayed by labor strife because it is irreplaceable. That doesn’t mean ESPN will run a test pattern for four hours on Monday evenings, but for now Skipper isn’t trying to figure out what the network can throw on as a substitute because whatever it is, the ratings and advertiser demand won’t be as high.

One thing you won’t see is ESPN trying to put college football on to replace ‘Monday Night Football.’ Skipper said the logistics of such a move would be too difficult and the network also needs the flexibility to drop whatever replacement plans are in place the second the players and owners reach an agreement and games start again.

‘We got a lot of other stuff,’ Skipper said without elaboration.

Skipper reiterated that ESPN would be an aggressive bidder for the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2016 Summer Games this June when the International Olympic Committee starts the process. Other bidders will include incumbent NBC and News Corp.'s Fox.

‘Our level of interest is very high,’ Skipper said. As for the competition, Skipper said it is difficult to handicap. While NBC has the legacy of carrying the games, new owner Comcast has indicated it wants to be in businesses that make money. NBC lost over $230 million on the 2010 Olympics.

Still, Skipper expects Comcast to be there. The cable giant also has a sports channel -- Versus -- that it wants to beef up.

‘I think they’d like to have it,’ Skipper said.

One of Skipper’s big pitches to the IOC will be live coverage regardless of what time zone the games are being played in. NBC usually puts taped coverage in prime time if the games are not being played in a time zone where the majority of U.S. viewers are home in the evening.

But in the age of the Internet and Twitter, such an approach seems out-of-date to some.

In its presentation to advertisers in New York, ESPN seemed to go out of its away to emphasize that it is much more than football and has an audience that goes beyond beer-guzzling men.The network heavily promoted its upcoming coverage of the Women’s World Cup and a new soccer-flavored biography series about female athletes and personalities called ‘HERoics.’

In attendance was Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger. Although he was listed as a ‘participant’ by ESPN in their program, his level of participation was waving to the crowd when introduced.

-- Joe Flint