Rita Ferro, after a 2017 promotion to lead the consolidated ad-sales efforts of the Disney-ABC Television Group, will add ESPN to her portfolio.

Ed Erhardt, who spent 20 years as head of sales for ESPN, has announced his retirement in early 2019.

Rita Ferro

The moves were announced by direct-to-consumer and international chairman Kevin Mayer, to whom Ferro reports.

Already in charge of sales for cornerstone properties such as ABC, its eight owned local TV stations and the Disney cable networks, Ferro will now also oversee the entire ESPN multi-platform portfolio. She takes that heavy baton at a critical time for the network, which has long been a growth engine for Disney but has entered more uncertain territory this decade amid the re-bundling of the pay-TV landscape. Although still a dominant force in sports media, ESPN has shed video subscribers and seen some volatility in ratings in some dayparts.

Like its TV programming peers, Disney’s networks are attempting to diversify their revenue mix and add subscription offerings to relieve stress on fees from traditional distribution and advertising. ESPN just launched a subscription service in the spring and a Disney-branded service overseen by Mayer is expected by the end of 2019. These direct-to-consumer opportunities are propelling the company’s $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox studio, cable and digital assets.

“Uniting our advertising sales efforts gives advertisers and marketers a one-stop shop for reaching audiences across all of The Walt Disney Company’s media properties, providing clients with the best and most effective tools and marketing solutions possible,” Mayer said. “Throughout her career, Rita has consistently grown businesses through a focus on brand building and innovation. She has played a crucial role in defining new growth strategies and has been a valued partner to me as we chart a course for our businesses. Rita’s steadfast focus on the needs of both clients and consumers, her track record of successful innovation and delivery of business results make her an ideal candidate to lead our company-wide sales efforts.”

Mayer also emphasized that Erhardt has been “planning for some time” to retire. He saluted the ESPN vet for “his dedication to the company and our clients.”

Ferro said she was “humbled to step into this new expanded role,” adding her conviction that “it is critical that we continue to evolve, rethink and anticipate how we work together across all of our platforms to best meet the changing needs of our clients and consumers.”

Erhardt called it an “honor” to have been at ESPN and Disney. “I am confident in the direction we’re headed under [ESPN president] Jimmy Pitaro’s leadership at ESPN and with Rita at the helm of the overarching ad sales business. She and I have a long, shared history and I’ve seen her leadership first hand. Her integrity and passion for the business will ensure our continued success in the ad sales arena.”

Here is Pitaro’s internal email to ESPN employees:

In 1999 George Bodenheimer hired Ed Erhardt from Advertising Age to run ad sales at ESPN. Ed arrived and got to work merging ESPN and ABC Sports Ad Sales, creating one unified group that worked across platforms and setting the template for the industry as to what a truly integrated multimedia sales team could look like.

He has spent his 20 years within our walls and across the industry as a visionary leader, all the while helping ESPN achieve remarkable results. And it is therefore with very mixed emotions that I tell you Ed has decided to hang up the gloves to begin a well-deserved retirement, starting in 2019.

Ed has been trying to make this move for some time, but he has been generous enough to see the company through some changes in recent months, including serving as a trusted advisor through my on-boarding process.

Over the years, he has brought many ideas to the fore that have benefited this company from both an innovation and a monetary standpoint. Some examples are:

  • He’s been a pioneer in media measurement, most recently pushing the industry to adopt single-source, cross-platform measurement and leading the charge on the importance of Out of Home.
  • He was a key architect of the successful College Football Playoff sales and marketing strategy, which has created unique sponsorship integrations and driven additional dollars to our bottom line.
  • In 2010 he established one of the first in-house, branded-content creative agencies, CreativeWorks, which works with hundreds of clients to develop bespoke creative designed for an ESPN audience.
  • He’s been a leader in ad innovation, including the introduction of the double-box treatment, expanding the BottomLine to run through ad breaks, and creating the single-advertiser SportsCenter experience. He also forged one of the most coveted sponsorship franchises in the sports marketplace: College GameDay Built by The Home Depot.
  • Ed created the first sports Upfront and then took that one step further when he suggested ESPN “crash” the broadcast Upfront week in 2007, opening a door through which many cable networks followed. And Ed used that opportunity to live out his theater directorial dreams, scripting a full-fledged Broadway show ESPNUP07: A Story of Sports, Love & Cross Platform Marketing, and putting his colleagues acting chops to the test.

A press release will be distributed shortly that will announce details, including that Ed will be staying on to work with the new leader of DTCI ad sales, Rita Ferro, in the establishment of the DTCI sales organization. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rita for many years and she is a great partner, strong leader and deft negotiator.  I look forward to working closely with her in the future.

The specifics of that org structure will be announced soon, as well as how Ed’s other areas of responsibility – Marketing, Research and CreativeWorks – will be managed within the organizations.

As referenced above, Ed is a fan and supporter of live theater, especially Broadway.  I expect he’ll be able to take in a lot more of his passion in his next act. And while “the show must go on” without Ed, it certainly won’t be the same.

We will properly celebrate Ed’s incredible career before he officially says goodbye but, for now, I want to offer our thanks and appreciation for his years of contributions to ESPN.