On Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre stage, where The Lion King roars eight times a week, Disney arm ESPN launched its upfront presentation to advertisers with a mix of gallows humor and star power. The presentation began with a New Orleans jazz band tooting the classic dirge, “St. James Infirmary Blues,” as dancers spun around in mock mourning, presumably for the crisis in ad sales. Then the skies brightened and the Voice of God assured the assembled buyers that “everything is going to be alright” and ESPN could assure them of  “a space where advertising feels like heaven.”

ESPN president and co-chairman of the Disney and ESPN Media Networks John Skipper took aim at the blizzard of stats he said cable competitors use to parse the drop-off in viewership by inflating numbers with +3 and +7 viewers and the like. ESPN, he assured, doesn’t “care about every impression on every screen,” sticking instead with number of viewers over “24 hours, third-party verified, in one environment.” The accompanying graphics –  incomprehensible charts with arrows going every which way projected above him – drove home the point with Mad magazine-style humor.

Alexis Ohanian and Serena Williams.
James Gourley/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Several programming announcements followed, along with a few surprise guests. First among them was tennis superstar Serena Williams, fresh off the revelation that the winner of 23 Grand Slam singles tournaments was pregnant when she prevailed at the Australian Open in January. Williams helped promote Mike Greenberg’s new upcoming morning show, slated to have its premiere on New Year’s Day from Gotham. In a faux-man cave setting with distressed leather couches, Greenberg, aka Greeny, asked Williams about her latest triumph and maternity leave.

“I’ve been trying to stay calm,” she said. “Right now, I’m focused on me and the baby, of course. I just want to come back and compete again,” undoubtedly hoping to break Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam trophies. Williams also gave a swell plug to the US Open, calling it “the biggest tournament for me…The crowd is more involved; here in New York, no one’s quiet.”

Among the other athletes to appear were retired NBA All Star Paul Pierce, and 76ers center Joel Embiid, who told singer Kelly Rowland he hoped she’d introduce him to Rihanna because … well, let him explain: “I mean, look at myself,” Embiid, who’s recovering from knee surgery, said. “I’m 7-2, I’m good looking. Women usually love my accent because I’m from Cameroon. And I’m pretty intelligent, too.”

Kenny Mayne
Jeremy Gerard

In an interlude that’s become increasingly common at network upfronts, a segment was given over to some sharp self-spoofing, in this case by SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne. He was flown down from the flies, wearing angel wings (first joke, referring to his descent: “this is a subtle reference to the power of cable”). Dropping F-bombs like cookie crumbs, Mayne managed to take digs at the advertising environment while simultaneously making it clear they couldn’t live without one another.

Driving the point home, the final announcement of the presentation was a promise of greater interactivity with the parent Mouse that will “allow customers to tap into assets across the Walt Disney Company” and provide advertisers with “unique access to valuable Disney data, insights and technology.”