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Questions (and Opportunities) Around ESPN’s College Football Megacast

While ESPN typically broadcasts a single feed for its wide array of sporting events, some of the biggest games for a calendar year get its “megacast” treatment.

For some contests, it’s just been a handful of different looks at the same game — putting the traditional feed on one channel, with radio feeds, analyst rooms and/or coaches rooms on another. But over time, the footprint of these megacasts has grown to include more and more around these major events, to the point where there were 20 different productions on ESPN linear and streaming platforms during last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship. This year’s had a “conservative” 17 in total, including the new Goodyear BlimpCast.

The benefit, obviously, is meeting the demand for different ways fans want to catch the action. One would assume the traditional feed on ESPN was fine for most (it was for this fan). But perhaps some — maybe those that more prefer the NFL over college football — liked the idea of the Monday Night Football broadcast team discussing the game on ESPNEWS. Or an Alabama-centric show talking more about the Crimson Tide over on the SEC Network. Field Pass, with Adam Amin and Steve Levy on ESPN2, included conversation from field level for a different perspective on the game.

All of those linear broadcasts were able to sell advertising against them, and ESPN likely benefited plenty from that, according to real-time TV ad measurement company with attention and conversion analytics company iSpot.tv. Their estimates indicate the TV ad spend on the primary feed was over $85 million for the event.

ESPN’s megacast is fan service in many ways — despite them dropping the favorite Coaches Film Room for 2019 — and if the idea is just to play to a bunch of niche experiences, then it’s more than okay to subdivide the audience a handful of times. In an environment where ESPN has quickly upped its streaming capabilities and is continuing to entice more subscribers for its premium ESPN+ service, this is a smart play that has potential long-term benefits.

Still, you have to wonder if having so many streams of the same event unnecessarily segments the audience in a way that makes all of the broadcasts less advantageous for advertisers. ESPN’s certainly thought about this, and discussed with its advertising partners (college football is one of its largest and most valuable properties, and there are a lot of long-term brand partners that know the deal by now). But it remains an interesting idea to split things up when most other major events (like the Super Bowl, Olympics) do not make similar moves.

If ESPN continues on the megacast strategy, however, there are numerous ways which it can be optimized from an ad standpoint.

Matching each individual network’s content to targeted ads is one way to increase the value of each broadcast for brand partners. Getting the most out of the streaming content is another — one that utilizes consumer preferences to serve up contextual ads individually engineered for various viewer experiences.

To-date, much of ESPN’s streaming ad strategy is either reusing linear TV ads (an easy way to lose digital audiences, if you ask companies like Beachfront) or its own network promos. The repeated cadence usually draws from the same limited inventory, making for messages that are tired and unoriginal after a handful of views. That’s not as much of a concern during a 30-minute sitcom. It’s far less tenable when watching a four-hour football game.

This is where ESPN’s digital content likely goes next, as its ESPN+ subscription service provides it with a paid access point for content, first and foremost, but also a better read on what consumers are watching (and reading) and when. Having that textured viewer picture allows ESPN to (down the road) know who’s tuning into a given event and what is most likely to hold that individual household’s attention. It works for its premium video content first, then those insights feed onto the ad side of things.

Such an evolution also allows megacast and other streaming events to look even more vibrant cross-platform, as they’re further tailored to audiences. With those cues already in tow, takeaways can be translated to the ads, which can be tailored into countless creative variations to maximize the impact of any buy. That creates further inroads for creative experts like PadSquad, experienced in making over 75 variations for a single ad, to meet the needs of different screens and points of entry.

With college football season over until August, we may not see the next steps for ESPN’s strategy for nearly a year. That said, events like the NBA Finals, NFL Draft and other marquee properties present other opportunities to test out getting the most out of megacast viewing from an ad standpoint and cross-platform.