Tom Brady Joins Disney Sports Pitch As ESPN Eyes “More Intimate” Game Telecasts

Dade Hayes

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Tom Brady, whose Last Dance-esque docu series is due on ESPN in 2021, made an appearance in Disney’s pitch to advertisers as the company sought to underscore its sports potency despite COVID-19.

The 44-minute video, covering entertainment, news, streaming and sports, took the place of the annual Disney upfront presentation in New York City.

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Production of the video wrapped before Thursday’s vote by NBA owners to resume the league’s season on July 31 at Disney’s ESPN facility in Florida. But the boost from that news dovetails with the never-let-them-see-you-sweat stance Disney showed to advertisers, as personified by Brady. Even during the complete absence of live sports in recent months, the 42-year-old quarterback has been a constant media presence due to his stunning move to the Tampa Buccaneers after 20 years with the New England Patriots.

Brady appeared for a two-minute segment at the very end of the video, which was bookended by a riff on Zoom calls featuring Anthony Anderson of Black-ish and other cast members from the show and its spinoffs. After Deon Cole of Grown-ish deadpans, “I’m going to be upfront: I lied on my resume,” Brady replies, “Resume? I never had one of those. Then again, I only have really had one job at this point.”

Anderson marvels, “Is that Tom Brady on our call?” The quarterback shrugs, “Now that I’m part of the Disney family, I can basically pop into any meeting I want.” When Anderson tries to pitch him ad ideas for his upcoming show, Brady logs off, saying, “See you, guys — I’m off to the Mandalorian meeting.”

Man in the Arena: Tom Brady, a nine-episode look at Brady’s career coming to ESPN, hopes to match the ratings success of Michael Jordan doc series The Last Dance. Thankfully for Disney, the company also will soon have more than just documentaries to offer advertisers in the second half of the year.

In an interview with Deadline earlier this week, prior to the NBA news, sales chief Rita Ferro, said, “If there’s one word this year that describes the upfront, it’s ‘flexibility.’” Many ad buyers — especially in categories decimated by COVID-19 like travel, hospitality and movies — have quickly moved to the sidelines. Negotiations and upfront events that are normally compressed into a few weeks in the spring have been extended and rethought. Instead of one-third of the year’s advertising being locked up in the upfront, buys are moving around and taking different forms. Digital platforms, as ever, are looming as a threat, with ads likely to bounce back there more quickly than on TV.

“We have clients who are often on the NBA in June and they’re asking, ‘Can you move me to Hulu if NBA is not on then?'” Ferro said. “Or, others say, ‘I really want to be on the NBA – can you just move me there whenever it comes on?’”

Largely due to the absence of sports, ad spending in general has declined markedly, especially in the second quarter, though it is starting to gradually return.

“There’s no question that pricing will be impacted,” Ferro said. “Scatter is still above our upfront pricing from last year” but “the upfront was headed to high double-digit price increase” before the pandemic. Now, she said, an uptick in the low-single-digits is likely.

The NFL Draft, which scored big ratings despite being hosted by commissioner Roger Goodell from his basement, “got people reinvigorated,” Ferro said. “In the world of sports, there’s a lot of multi-year business.” Having started her career with a long stint at ESPN, she expressed optimism about relationships around college and pro football in particular being able to sustain Disney’s revenue over the longer term.

Connor Schell, EVP of content for ESPN, said the network’s broadcasts of the NFL Draft in April and UFC bouts throughout the spring have brought about meaningful innovations. With social distancing informing all shoots, he said, humanity and character were able to emerge in new ways.

“We’re trying to figure out when sports resume, in many cases without fans in the stands, how we can bring the presentations to life in more interesting and intimate ways,” he said on the video. Crews are trying to come up with “new camera presentations and angles.” The network overall is trying to determine “how we can use audio and capture sound in really interesting ways.”