A Disney-Ally graphic. A Disney-Ally graphic. (ESPN.)

Back in February, Ally Financial struck a multi-year, multimillion advertising deal with Disney. What was particularly remarkable about that deal was that it came with the condition of at least 90 percent of the spend being on women’s sports. That’s already seen Ally become an official sponsor of the Atlantic Coast Conference, including title sponsorships of the ACC women’s basketball, women’s lacrosse, and women’s soccer tournaments. The February release also mentioned that this deal would have a focus on “expanding game highlights, branded content and features across the ESPN networks, including regular SportsCenter segments that highlight top women’s sports accomplishments,” and we’re now seeing some of that in particular with two new women-focused SportsCenter takeovers.

These takeovers will be of the 11 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter on Thursday (July 27) and then again on Aug. 11. They’ll be anchored by ESPN’s Elle Duncan and Nicole Briscoe, and they’ll also be “led primarily by an all-female production team.” And in addition to branding that will be displayed on in-show content, Ally has exclusive rights to the commercials during these episodes, and “Each of the designated editions of SportsCenter will conclude with live commercials featuring the two anchors that will transition seamlessly into Ally’s branded content.”

ESPN’s in-house ESPN Creative Works agency also worked with Ally on “Flip The Game” 60-second spots featuring Sue Bird and Monica McNutt. Those spots will “sarcastically illustrate and describe how a SportsCenter segment could look in an alternative reality in which a financial services company needed to step up to support men’s sports.” So this is quite a wide-ranging partnership, and quite the mix of editorial and advertising content. Here are some quotes on it from ESPN’s release:

“At Disney, we prioritize amplifying women’s sports and collaborating with like-minded brands to tell diverse sports stories,” said Deidra Maddock, VP, Disney Advertising Sports Brand Solutions. “This particular execution with Ally marks the first time that we’ve developed such a unique combination of tactics and solutions to elevate women in sports – and we’re incredibly proud to be working alongside them on this initiative.”

…“ESPN is a leader in women’s sports coverage, and Ally is a leader in intentional and equitable sports media investments. Together, we’re demonstrating our shared commitment to elevating women’s sports,” said Stephanie Marciano, head of sports and entertainment marketing at Ally. “These takeovers, which are unique and creative, deliver an important message – increasing visibility and investment changes the game. Our collaboration is another example of how brands and media can work together to advance women’s sports and meet fan demand.”

Variety‘s Brian Steinberg got further notable quotes from Marciano and others on both the ESPN and Ally sides:

“The game has changed recently,” says Stephanie Marciano, Ally’s head of sports and entertainment marketing. “We are not talking about the athletes. We are talking about everything around the game – the business, the economics of the teams.” 

…“A lot of the space that has historically been reserved for men is now being taken up by women, who are talking smack,” says Susie Piotrkowski, vice president of women’s sports programming for [ESPN]. “People are starting to recognize the product is OK to consume even if you are a man. For a really long time, part of the perception of women’s sports was that it was only for women or little girls. We know that is not true.”

…ESPN produces more than 33,000 live hours of women’s sports each year, says Piotrkowski. Her hope is to boost other sports so that they generate interest now being accorded to the women’s Final Four and the WNBA. “Does flag football have a future?” she asks, noting that lacrosse and women’s tackle football could also represent opportunities.

There is also hope of being able to expand existing coverage of such things as the WNBA, says Sara Gaiero, the coordinating producer of ESPN’s coverage of the league. She’d like to be able to have a pre-game show before each game she says, and make off-season coverage of WNBA players more prominent. “If we could find ways to have more consistent coverage of the league from top to bottom, I think that would be great,” she says.

The ESPN-Ally deal is only part of Disney’s overall approach to women’s sports, and as Steinberg notes, some of the advertising in particular requires creativity. For example, US Bank is a large advertiser on ESPN’s WNBA coverage, so Ally isn’t a particular fit there. But they’ve managed to come up with creative ways to get their ad spend applied to women’s sports, including those aforementioned ACC deals. And these SportsCenter takeovers are certainly an interesting further step there, and it’s notable to see them emphasize women in production roles as well as those in front of the camera. We’ll see how these special SportsCenter editions are received and if there will be more editorial/advertising partnerships along these lines down the road.

[Variety, ESPN Press Room]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.