ESPN is selling ads based on sports fans’ wildly changing emotions

Sports fans feel a lot.
Sports fans feel a lot.
Image: Reuters/Susana Vera
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It’s nearing the end of the fourth quarter and your team just blew a 15 point lead. Now the game is tied. Cut to a commercial break on the ESPN app, and you’re likely to see a very different ad than will a fan of the rival team.

ESPN says it can target ads to sports fans across its digital platforms based not only on their interests or demographics—like Facebook and Google do—but on their wildly changing emotions.

“Whether or not a sports fan is happy, sad, slightly anxious, or overjoyed, we have the ability to anticipate their emotion and deliver relevant ads to them that creates a personalized experience,” said Travis Howe, ESPN’s senior vice president of digital ad product sales and strategy, at the company’s first-ever Newfront event on Wednesday. Newfronts are the media industry’s annual presentations for digital advertisers.

Howe said ESPN can do this because it has “the largest database of fan behaviors, preferences, and insights.” About 80% of people who register with the ESPN app, for example, select their favorite sports and teams in exchange for a more tailored experience, said another executive, Rob King, at the presentation. ESPN pairs that information with what’s happening in the game to predict what fans are feeling and serve them ads that cater to the moment.

During the NBA playoffs tonight (May 3), that means fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers could see different commercials depending on whether the team is winning or losing to the Raptors at any given point in the game.

The ad technology, called LiveConnect, launched in beta for digital display ads in 2016 and has since expanded to video.

Howe also boldly claimed ESPN was “larger than Facebook and right behind Google as the largest platform” in the US when you combine TV and digital. Google and Facebook command more than half of digital ad spending in the US. 

Howe said ESPN had a reach of 215 million sports fans a month across digital and TV. As of March 2018 (pdf), Facebook reports that it had 241 million monthly active users in the US and Canada alone.