TWC, ESPN Ride Together in Texas
Byline: SHIRLEY BRADY
As K.C. Neel noted in this magazine two weeks ago, ESPN has become “the cable industry’s poster child for bad behavior when it comes to arrogance over rate hikes,” whether it’s the network’s 20% increase to more than $2 per sub taking effect Aug. 1, or its long-term annual 15% increase.
ESPN’s counter-argument/self-defense was spelled out to reporters – who were wined and dined at a Manhattan steakhouse – a week before the annual May 1 contractual license-fee increase notices were sent to affiliates.
ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer and ESPN EVP of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches walked the assembled journalists through a PowerPoint presentation demonstrating their “value proposition” to operators.
The money shot in the presentation was a graphic of a wheel showing the panoply of additional services that the 80% Disney-owned programmer also offers operators, such as ESPN Motion, HD, VOD and ESPN Broadband.
The debate over ESPN’s value versus rising costs for the customer has been playing out on Capitol Hill and in countless press reports since that evening in New York.
ESPN also showcased its value proposition – in terms of the range of what’s possible in a partnership between the sports programmer and a cable affiliate – against a backdrop of vertical skateboarding, bike stunts and other gravity-defying feats in San Antonio last month.
At the U.S. site for the first-ever X Games Global Championship, in which athletes competed for their countries, ESPN rolled out its biggest-ever affiliate partnership to date, spearheaded by ESPN SVP of field sales and marketing James Brown.
ESPN brought the full breadth of its resources to Time Warner Cable San Antonio, footing the bill for a menu as extensive as the wine cellar’s in that Manhattan steakhouse.
A sampling of the affiliate marketing blitz at the three-day competition:
Co-branded postcards with digital upgrade information were sent to 155,000 nondigital TWC subscribers, with an exclusive hospitality suite (and free messenger bags) for subscribers who upgraded at the event.
Subscribers received free advance tickets to the event. More than 60,000 San Antonians – including current and potential customers – attended for free.
ESPN provided signage inside and outside the Alamodome that was clearly visible to a national audience in the coverage on ESPN, ESPN2 and on an ABC special that aired May 25.
Customized cross-channel spots touted TWC, as did on-air promos on local ESPN radio affiliate KTKR.
The Jumbotron and PA system highlighted Time Warner Cable throughout the event, while EXPN.com drove online users to www.twc-sa.com, which featured a webcam and related content from the games.
The companies promoted their respective advanced services. Besides mailers to customers, TWC received place of honor in an “Interactive Village” at the Alamodome, which demonstrated its Road Runner, wireless high-speed Internet, DVR, HD and VOD products while ESPN demonstrated services such as ESPN HD. An HD Lounge at the Top of the Dome bar offered drinks and food along with hi-def programming demos.
Local ad sales opportunities included special footage and customized spots sold by Time Warner’s ad sales team.
Prizes to drive customer acquisition included a grand prize trip for two to the 2003 Summer X Games in Los Angeles.
Community relations were bolstered with public affairs initiatives, such as safety clinics at local middle schools and a sports career panel with ESPN executives at a local high school.
While shouldering the bulk of the cost for the promotion, ESPN was able to book sponsors such as AT&T, GM and McDonald’s. ESPN Deportes was promoted at ESPN’s Friday Night Fights event that weekend, which also boosted TWC’s ties with the local Hispanic community and drove its digital product.
Time Warner Cable rewired the Alamodome, and will leave the infrastructure in place to allow future usage of Road Runner and other Time Warner services. TWC staffers promoted the games, with the top salesperson winning a behind-the-scenes tour of the ESPN production and meeting the athletes. About 1,000 TWC employees and their families attended an appreciation party, while News 9, the system’s news channel that launched on April 14, covered the event and received footage from past X Games for feature stories. The VOD platform offered about 1,300 views of previous X Games events between April 12 and May 22.
“We built off our X Games partnership in Philadelphia last year with Comcast, and it took about a year to develop this with a solid three months before the event to make it happen,” Brown said. “We worked out a lot of the bugs in Philly, and this time we really came up with extra opportunities to boost our local affiliate and become more involved, so it was a real partnership. It was great exposure for the X Games Global Championship, and absolutely reinforced our partnership with our affiliate so they can see we bring more than just a network.”
“Overall this was an incredible opportunity for us to partner with ESPN, an opportunity that no one should pass up,” said Time Warner Cable San Antonio VP/GM Kevin Kidd. “We’ve got DBS and hardwired overbuilders here, so this was an important image campaign for us with a very powerful message.”
While the final number of TWC customers who were upsold or acquired as a result of the campaign is still being crunched, Kidd said “the effort resulted in a significant increased retention factor and we gained a bunch of customers. And when we gain customers, ESPN gains customers.”
And yes, he added, it helped “take the sting out of those rate hikes.”
THE NEXT QUESTION:
*Will ESPN extend these far-reaching MSO partnership beyond the X Games franchise?
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