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ESPN President John Skipper: Elevating The Profile Of Women In Sports

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Dana Point, CA - October 10, 2013 - St. Regis Monarch Beach: John Skipper and Sage Steele during the 2013 ESPNW Summit. (Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

Dana Point, CA – October 10, 2013 – St. Regis Monarch Beach: John Skipper and Sage Steele during the 2013 ESPNW Summit.
(Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

John SkipperESPN President and Co-Chairman of Disney Media Networks, has an unmistakable southern accent. It is the type of drawl that makes you sit up straight, lean toward the edge of your seat, and hang on his every word.

He grabs your attention.

His tenure at ESPN began in 1997 as the senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine. A few years later, oversight of ESPN.com was added to his vitae, and in 2003, a promotion to executive vice president ensued. In 2005, Skipper became ESPN’s executive vice president of content. Here, he guided the creation, programming and production of ESPN content across all media platforms.

2012 marked the beginning of his most influential role with the network. Since taking over the reins, ESPN signed long-term agreements with Major League Baseball, the college football playoff, and AT&T T -0.43% U-Verse, just to name a few. This year, FORBES listed ESPN as one of the world’s most valuable brands in sports with an estimated brand value of $15.0 billion, which is up from $11.5 billion in 2012.

It is safe to say that Skipper has devoted his entire career in sports to mastering the art of capturing audiences.

His most recent challenge is advancing ESPN’s women’s sports audience. Skipper and his team TISI +2.2% are driven to increase women’s sports viewers and advertisers, and leave them wanting more. Specifically, his attention and talent is focused on espnW which is “ESPN’s first dedicated content and digital business initiative designed to serve, inform, and inspire female fans.”

Team espnW does not operate in a vacuum, and theWomen + Sports Summit presented by Toyota is an example of their commitment to grow the brand with the assistance of countless women in sports leaders.

A sample of the 2013 participants include: Anucha Browne, Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships, NCAA; Sharon Byers, Senior Vice President, Sports & Entertainment MarketingCoca-Cola KO -0.49% North America; Donna de Varona, Olympic swimmer and member of the IOC Women and Sport Commission; Laura Desmond, Global Chief Executive Officer, Starcom MediaVest Group; Janet Evans, Olympic swimmer; Julie Eddleman; North America Brand Operations Marketing Director, P&G; Julie Foudy, Olympic soccer player and television analyst; Michelle Kwan, Olympic figure skater; Kathryn Olson, CEO, Women’s Sports Foundation; and Merritt Paulson, Owner and President of the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and Portland Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League.

“It was our intention to build upon the legacy of ESPN and women’s sports and to take a leadership position and focus our efforts on what we could do to drive women’s sports forward,” Skipper said about the fourth annual espnW summit.

“This is a unique venture where we invite friends, partners, athletes, and leaders in women’s sports to come and have a discussion and help us think about what we might do next. It is one of the few events where we end up with a set of priorities, which we want to take action on.”

An example of that action is the extended partnership between ESPN and the WNBA. At the 2012 summit, WNBA President, Laurel Richie, made a powerful impression on the attendees by urging them to consider what they could do to get behind the WNBA and help move the league forward. Skipper proudly announced that ESPN stepped up to the challenge and earlier this year announced a long-term television partnership with the league.

“We got behind it, and ratings were up this year. This is the best year we’ve had,” said Skipper. “We want to continue to show this leadership and do more for women’s sports. We believe in it. We believe in supporting female athletes and female executives, and we want to be leaders in that.”

In the words of legendary UCLA softball coach and espnW advisory board member, Sue Enquist, “There is something to be said about a company that makes an investment not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it recognizes that it will translate into a meaningful business decision down the road.”

Skipper and ESPN are leading that charge.

During the espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Forbes.com caught up with Skipper to discuss ESPN’s role in elevating how women see sports in their lives, how espnW exposes the best and brightest female athletes to the world, and the challenges associated with this mission. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Alana Glass: Why is the espnW: Women + Sports Summit an important event to host year-after-year?

John Skipper: We decided about three years ago that we wanted to establish an overt leadership position for ESPN Women’s Sports.  We have been the leader in televising women’s sports for years, and we do more women’s events on television than the rest of the sports business put together.  We wanted to have a directed initiative, effort, and brand that allowed us to make our efforts more coherent and consistent.

The summit is a high-profile, highly visible, once-a-year gathering of leaders across different categories of women’s sports. Whether it is the leagues, marketers, athletes, media, to talk about the state of women’s sports. Where are we and how do we continue to press forward with growing women’s sports?

AG: Recently, I learned that the day after ESPN was founded in 1979, the network aired women’s sports the next day. Is it challenging to get the message across to fans that ESPN has been committed to women’s sports since day one?

JS: When we started espnW, it clearly had an advocacy position and a leadership position. We wanted to advocate for women’s sports. That was what the 40th anniversary of Title IX allowed us to do. Establishing a public brand, is clearly about us trying to put a stake in the ground that we are leaders here.

And of course, I’ll refer to the legacy. We have been [broadcasting] women’s sports for a long time. Now it is just a more concerted public effort to continue to do that and to be more of an advocate.  We also want to do it because we think this is not only good business, it is good externally. Obviously, we also think it is good internally. We are trying hard to diversify our workforce and to make sure that people know that women have every opportunity at ESPN.

AG: How does espnW fit into ESPN’s overall business model?

JS: For most of ESPN’s history, our proposition to advertisers has been about reaching young men. That has been the business advertising platform. We believe that because of Title IX, women have participated in sports at significantly higher and higher levels. That has translated into more and more women also watching sports. Now, it is not a one-to-one relationship. Just because women play basketball, does not mean they watch women’s basketball, but they might watch men’s basketball. Or they might watch NFL. So in terms of business, it is about ratings.

Women watch more and more sports, and we want those women to believe that ESPN is their home to watch sports. As women watch more sports, marketers will use sports to reach women. Traditionally, they have not used sports in a lot of ways to reach women. That opens up new advertising categories for us.

AG: How has the corporate and business community responded to espnW and the summit?

JS: What we are trying to create with the summit and this engagement is to move marketers toward understanding that sports is a great way to reach women. It is also the fact that the women they reach through sports tend to be more active, more engaged, and tend to be higher socioeconomic groups, so it is a good place. We want more advertisers to move forward, to understand the power of sports to reach women, and to engage with us on that.

AG: What are the challenges or hurdles associated with your goals?

JS: The biggest challenge we would love to crack are the ratings for women’s sports. We saw good movement this year with the WNBA, which we are happy about. We have seen good numbers, for instance, women’s college softball.  But we would like to see that all fans, men and women, have a greater interest and respect and avidity for women’s sports.  We would like more people to watch the WNBA. I think that it is probably the hardest thing we have to figure out how to crack here.

Good Night Sports Fans,

Alana

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Laura Gentile, espnW Imagines The Future Of Women’s Sports

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As a female journalist and sports fan, I cannot help but notice that people are often

Dana Point, CA - October 9, 2013 - St. Regis Monarch Beach: Welcome Reception during the 2013 ESPNW Summit. (Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

Dana Point, CA – October 9, 2013 – St. Regis Monarch Beach: Welcome Reception during the 2013 ESPNW Summit.
(Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

uncomfortable talking about women’s sports. And when the subject of creating platforms specifically dedicated to female athletes and sports fans arises the conversation goes from uncomfortable to divisive.

There are those who are firmly against any programming or platforms that cater to female sports fans and athletes, and there are those who are for it. The part that baffles me is that in 2013, the “for and against” conversation still exists. On some level it is almost as if there are “red” and “blue” sides on this issue (and considering the tone and tenor of today’s political climate, we’re seeing first-hand what happens when two sides cannot agree).

It would be naïve of me to think that my comments regarding this issue can all of a sudden create unity on this topic, but I invite you to consider this question.

If women’s sports were everything WE believe it can be, what would it look like?

I wish I could take credit for this question; it actually belongs to Laura C. Gentile who is the vice president of espnW who started exploring it in 2008.

“We’d covered women’s sports for decades. We’d served millions of women, but we’ve never focused on women as a target audience with a discreet business unit,” said Gentile. “We just started thinking, if we were to create a business at ESPN for women, what would it look like?”

They talked to women to find out what they wanted and what they would accept. In response, they heard, “I know ESPN is a leader and they have incredible credibility. If they do it right and it is authentic, I’d embrace it.”

So began the genesis of espnW, a place for women who love sports; that speaks to them as athletes and fans.

“We thought long and hard about these five letters, espnW, and what they need to represent and what they need to stand for,” Gentile said. “They need to be action oriented and forward looking, consistently progressive, innovative and also of the highest quality. And we want this to be a brand that women think is cool and vibrant.”

In 2010, espnW launched with a five and ten-year business plan. During the first annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Gentile spoke openly about the dynamic of women’s sports fans and coverage at ESPN. At that time,  ESPN.com reached over 5 million women a month, and ESPN the Magazine reached over 3 million female readers that year. Women made up over 40% of the viewing audience, yet only contributed to 23% of the viewing hours.

Gentile said, “That’s a dynamic we are going to change, by creating a specific and unique environment for women at espnW.com. We are creating a home for women athletes and fans – the place for sports-minded women to go and stay.”

However, the concept of espnW was not met with tremendous fanfare, and it suffered bruises in the beginning. There were critics who did not understand what they were trying to accomplish, and many who did not want to understand.

“That was a bit unforeseen because a lot of that criticism came before we even had a product. They assumed the worst. That this would be dumbed down, that it would be pink, or it would be condescending,” said Gentile.

“I think what they missed is the authenticity behind it. And unfortunately, some of that criticism came equally from men and women.

Interestingly enough, Gentile believes that the criticism they experienced in their first two years has made the site stronger. She was never under any illusion that creating a dedicated digital platform for women to converse and see issues that matter to them would be easy. As a result, espnW sharpened its message, took more risks, and explored innovation.

Recently, espnW launched a new responsive website that allows users to seamlessly shift between a desktop, tablet, and mobile device. Additionally, its 2012-2013 integration featured the Nine for IX documentary series, In the Game with Robin Roberts, the 3 to See, and The Summer of W. As a result, ESPN.com is reaching 10 million women per month, and in August of this year espnW.com reached over 4 million women.

“We’re reaching new women. We’re also serving the women that we’ve always served,” Gentile said. “We’re also opening a lot of eyes that women’s sports are part of the future. The dynamic of changing viewing hours and habits; that is going take a long time.”

Fortunately, Gentile has found that the conversation surrounding espnW has swung from a lot of people questioning why to people saying “what’s next?”

So what is next?

There are plans to go deeper in the college space, where espnW will be featured in women’s basketball and softball telecasts. Also, there is more that they want to do across television. Ideally over time, you will see more and more programming from espnW across the network that engages women.

Also, expect to see continued partnerships with the corporate community. Nike, Gatorade, and P&G were founding partners even before there was a product, and they are still on board. Likewise, Toyota, JBL by Harman, Under Armour, and Rite Aid are sponsoring espnW’s fourth annual Women+ Sports Summit currently being held in Dana Point, California (October 9-11).

espnW and its summit demonstrate the belief that people who have different conversations about women’s sports can collectively come together and imagine what the future can look like.

Good Night Sports Fans,

Alana

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WNBA Captures Fans, Ends Regular Season With Record Growth

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logoWinning in the world of sports boils down to execution. Make plays. Score points. Win games. Become a champion.

The same can be said for the business of sports. Create a plan. Market the product. Identify sponsors. Sell tickets. Capture fans.

Historically, professional sports franchises and leagues that thrive season after season, on and off the playing field have mastered the art of execution. In the case of the WNBA, the last several seasons under the direction of President Laurel J. Richie, the league refocused its business strategy while placing an emphasis on execution, and it shows.

Richie, who is a seasoned corporate marketer and brand strategist, worked with her team to create a new identity for the WNBA that is more aligned with where the league is today. Gone is the original and outdated red, white, and blue logo, and it is replaced with a modern orange and oatmeal logo featuring an athletic silhouette. The league also extended its television agreement with ESPN an additional six years, taking its partnership through 2022.

On the marketing front, the WNBA highlighted its much anticipated rookie class, including Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury), Elena Delle Donne(Chicago Sky), and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock), as the “3 to See”; and the rookies lived up to everyone’s expectations. Delle Donne was the first rookie to lead All-Star voting, and she finished the season with Rookie of the Year honors. Diggins and the Shock did not experience success on the court this season, but the team was one of the most popular teams in terms of merchandise and jersey sales. Griner played above the rim, dunking twice in her WNBA debut and setting the record for most dunks in a single game.

The league also introduced a new partnership with State Farm Insurance, where it served as the presenting partner of the 2013 WNBA Draft and WNBA Community Assist Award, as well as the half-time sponsor of nationally televised games on ABC and ESPN2.

In the end, the WNBA accomplished exactly what it set out to do: capture fans.

The league experienced an increase in television viewership. ESPN2 averaged 231,000 viewers, which is a 28% increase over last season. The opening day telecast featuring Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky versus Griner and the Phoenix Mercury delivered the 455,000 viewers, which was the most-watch game WNBA game on ESPN2 since 2004. Fan attendance jumped in Chicago(+17%), Phoenix(+9%), and Indiana (+8%), and the league as a whole saw a 1% increase.

And those fans who were not utilizing traditional forms of media, they followed the WNBA via digital formats, including WNBA.com and LiveAccess which both experienced double digit growth.

As the WNBA continues to execute its plan for growing women’s professional basketball, the league should continue to see its business metrics elevate season-after-season.

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Growing Up Manning: A Look Inside Football’s First Family

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eli_peyton1What are the odds of raising two children who grow up to become number one NFL draft picks, as well as Super Bowl Champions and MVPs in back-to-back seasons?

Well, my research did not uncover this statistic, but according to the NFL Players Association, “of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football every year, only 215 will make an NFL roster. That is 0.2%!” And of the 9,000 players who compete on the collegiate level each year, only 3.5% of those players receive an invitation to the NFL scouting combine.

Indeed, the odds of playing professional football on Sunday are tough, and competing against your sibling at the same time – that is even tougher.

You would think that there’s a secret to raising professional athletes. But if you ask Archie Manning, also known as the father of Peyton and Eli Manning, two of the most recognizable faces in the NFL, he will tell you that a how to guide does not exist. In fact, he shrugs off talk that suggests he planned, from day one, to raise NFL athletes.

Peyton and Eli both play the quarterback position, and have led their respective teams to the Super Bowl. In 11 playoff appearances with his former team, Indianapolis Colts, Peyton made it to the Super Bowl twice (a Super Bowl XLI win over Chicago and a Super Bowl XLIV loss to New Orleans). While younger brother, Eli, on the other hand, is hungry for a third Super Bowl ring (he has two wins over New England – Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI). However, when it comes to sibling rivalry, Peyton leads the “Manning Bowl” series, going a perfect 3-0.

So, what was it like growing up Manning?

In the third season of ESPN Films’ SEC Storied documentary series, which kicks off tonight with The Book of Manning (Tuesday, September 24, at 8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN), that question is explored and answered.

In anticipation of the premiere, Archie spoke with members of the media about being the Manning patriarch, his days as a star quarterback at Ole Miss and former NFL quarterback with the New Orleans Saints, and raising three sons (Cooper, Peyton, and Eli) each with football dreams in their own right. Here are excerpts of his comments:

On recognizing Peyton and Eli’s athletic potential

Archie: I don’t know if we ever talked about it. It just evolved. People will tell you, I was always very reluctant, very slow to talk about their future.

Maybe the first Manning Bowl in ’06, I remember us sitting down and looking at each other and just saying, “What in the world is going on here?” When Peyton won his Super Bowl MVP and the next year the Giants and Eli won one. That’s when it hit us, this wasn’t a plan.

On advice about playing the quarterback position

Archie: I think the first thing that my sons will tell you, that I never tried to be their coach.  I didn’t give them as much advice as some people might think, being a former player myself and a former quarterback. If they asked, I gave them my opinion.

But I think that they would tell you this, too.  I tell the same thing to young quarterbacks. The best advice I try to give a young quarterback is, you need to know what you’re doing.  You need to know what you’re doing, because if you know where to go with the football, you can get rid of it and throw it and you won’t get hit. And that’s  advice a quarterback needs to have, especially a passing quarterback or somebody that’s going to be in the pocket.

On raising professional athletes and advice for parents

Archie: I don’t think that’s a goal that parents should have for their children, whatever sport it is, to be a professional [athlete]. As parents, we don’t need to be the ones that push that.  They have to like it and enjoy it and want to do it. And parents, we are just there to support [them]. It never was a goal to get Peyton to the NFL, and so even though he got there, it wasn’t our goal to push Eli along to get to the NFL. They were motivated to play and get better, and they had a great work ethic.  That’s why they got there.

My advice for parents is to support your children, make sure they are having fun. Support them and be there for them. Give them encouragement and make it a life lesson that along the way they are learning to make good decisions and do the right thing.

On Cooper and Peyton’s health concerns

Archie: It’s been a real blessing and maybe somewhat of a miracle what Cooper went through.  Immediately, of course, we wanted to check on Peyton and Eli and have them checked to make sure they didn’t have that same stenosis, which they didn’t.

And then, knock‑on‑wood here, they both have been so fortunate in regard to injuries in their career. So when Peyton had his first neck surgery and the second and the third and the fourth, obviously we were concerned. Football wasn’t primary on our mind, it was ‑‑ let’s try to get Peyton healthy.

The fact that all the doctors cleared him to play again, there’s no guarantee you’ll get to come back and play.  A lot of people didn’t think he would. We just didn’t know. He never took football for granted because of what happened to Cooper. But I think he always knew he was fortunate in regard to health. But he wasn’t ready for his career to be over, not like that. Not [after] four surgeries and having to leave the place where he had been so long. He just didn’t want it to end right there.

On Peyton and Eli’s NFL endorsements.

Archie: If you look at their history, the associations they have and the corporate partners they have, it’s quality. I’ve always thought if you’re going to have a relationship like that, you hope it’s not just a quick one; that it’s something meaningful, and you’re part of something within the company. The DIRECTV [Football on Your Phone] the rap video was certainly odd to me, I had a very small part. This is a 15‑year relationship our family has had with DIRECTTV. They are a wonderful company and they have great people. They are a big part of the NFL, so it’s a good tie‑in.

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From IndyCar Driver To Owner: How Sarah Fisher ‘Leans In’

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downloadIn the bestseller, Lean In – Women Work and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, talks to women across the world encouraging them to “lean in” instead of being stopped by self-made barriers.

Sandberg tells women, “Don’t enter the workforce already looking for an exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.”

For, Sarah Fisher, IndyCar owner and retired open-wheel driver, she has accelerated throughout her entire career.

Once-upon-at-time you could have described Fisher’s racing team as the “little racing team that could.”  This season, Indianapolis based Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR) is doing more than just surviving in the highly competitive world of IZOD IndyCar racing; the team is celebrating the construction of a $2.5 million fully function R&D facility and fan destination, the addition of a second car to the racing team, and a second place finish at the Grand Prix of Baltimore.

Fisher is the heartbeat of SFHR, she has her foot on the gas pedal and is “leaning in” at 220 mph.

She started racing when she was five years old. Her parents met when her mother beat her father in a go-cart street race, but racing in her family was only meant to be a hobby. It wasn’t until Fisher recognized that she had a knack for the sport, and it was something that she could make a living from did she pursue it as a career.

“One thing my dad and mom did, which was amazing, they put me in a lot of different types of cars,” said Fisher to FORBES.com. “So I was able to quickly adapt and transition into a professional series.”

Fisher excelled as a professional open-wheel racing driver. She was the first female in IndyCar Series history to start from the pole position and earn a podium finish. At 19, she became the youngest woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and her nine Indy 500 starts marks the most starts for a woman in the history of the race. But for Fisher, being a woman was never the focal point of her racing career.

“For me it’s about quality, more importantly than being a female. I always had that same thought process my entire career,” Fisher said. “If I am talented and I’m competitive then I deserve a chance to be here just like everyone else. But if I go out there and I’m not competitive, then I should not get that opportunity.”

Despite her own quality versus gender viewpoint, being a female driver is what forced Fisher to adopt race car owner to her resume.

As a driver, she butted heads with an engineer whom she felt was chauvinistic and didn’t want her competing. On several occasions, she discovered parts on the car that were stacked against her, and she wasn’t confident because she couldn’t trust the car or engineer.

“I tried within reason all the different techniques of telling your boss you have a problem, and I couldn’t get anything resolved,” Fisher said. “I was forced to be in this very uncomfortable situation. So that’s why I decided to start this team on the founding principle of having good people working together on an overall mission.”

Together with her husband and general manager, Andy O’Gara, they launched Sarah Fisher Racing (SFR). Fisher noted that her ability to avoid controlling situations and influence those with whom she worked with required writing their paycheck.

In 2008, Fisher welcomed prominent Kansas oilman and serial entrepreneur, Willis E. “Wink” Hartman, as a sponsor. Fisher didn’t find Hartman; he found her.

Shortly before the 2008 Indy 500, Hartman was watching ESPN when he heard the story of Fisher’s attempt to qualify, but a sponsor’s check did not arrive. Hartman recognized her plight and wired the money that she needed to compete. Ultimately, he saw the potential in her American Dream and recognized that what Fisher was up to was much bigger than a one-time sponsorship, so together they formed SFHR in 2012.

In the beginning, Fisher’s race team was small enough that it made sense for her to fulfill the dual role of driver-owner. However, once the team expanded, she stepped away from the driving responsibilities and has since handed them over to Josef Newgarden, currently ranked 14th in the Izod IndyCar Series standings.

“A big part of what we do and why we are able to succeed is because we spend a lot of time doing our homework on the people side to make sure that we assemble the proper team,” Fisher said. “Behind everything that you see, all these great things there are people that we’ve handpicked to work together to elevate our team. That’s a big area of focus for us.”

Another focus of Fisher’s is growing sponsorships. SFHR is primarily backed by Hartman’s sponsorship, but Fisher recognizes from a business standpoint the team needs more. She notes that every team has its own financial plan, and a small team can budget in the $4-5 million range.  But budgeting more in the $7 million range allows for assembling the right team, testing, and R&D.

“It’s difficult for a young team to survive in this sport. It’s a challenging environment and difficult to be competitive out of the box,” Fisher said. “And it’s a Catch-22 situation.  If you’re not competitive, you don’t get sponsors.”

When asked what corporate sponsor is on her wish list, Fisher replied “Procter and Gamble would be my dream sponsor.” As a mother, wife, and CEO, she recognizes the value in developing partnerships with strong brands that will not only propel her racing team but also means a lot to American households.

Fisher attributes her success to trusting in people and finding balance.

“You have to enjoy what you’re doing,” said Fisher. “If you don’t enjoy what you do you’ll just be miserable, and your family will reflect on that. If you don’t enjoy what it is that you’re trying to achieve then find something else. Enjoy life and live for that.”

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CFO Christine Driessen: The Financial Force Behind ESPN

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Christine Driessen - December 21, 2010Imagine spending your entire career driving the future of sports programming. Imagine creating a paradigm shift and fundamentally altering the way society thinks about and views sports. Imagine being on the ground floor of a sports revolution.

There is a saying, “The revolution will not be televised.” Actually, in the world of sports, it is on-air and you can find it on ESPN.

ESPN, Inc., is the leading multinational, multimedia sports entertainment company featuring the broadest portfolio of multimedia sports assets with over 50 business entities

Remember when it offered only one 24/7 cable channel and that was enough to satisfy our appetite?

Never in our wildest dreams could anything possibly top that. Then before our eyes the company took off and added more domestic cable networks(ESPN2 and ESPNEWS), syndicated programming, radio (ESPN radio),websites (ESPN.com), and multi-screen platforms (ESPN3 and WatchESPN).

They made it look easy, but we all know there is no such thing as an overnight success.

Today, ESPN is valued at $40 billion and is the world’s most valuable media property as noted by my Forbes colleague, Kurt Badenhausen. And according to an analyst note from Wunderlich Securities, it is estimated that the ESPN will make more than $10 billion in revenue in 2013.

At the intersection of ESPN’s financial and sports programming success, you will find Christine Driessen, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer.

She started her career at ESPN in 1985 as its controller shortly after ABC’s acquisition (Currently, the company is 80 % owned by ABC, Inc., an indirect subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company and the Hearst Corporation holds the remaining 20% interest). At that time,  ESPN was only five years into its existence, and she was intrigued by the business proposition.

Driessen’s decision to join ESPN wasn’t easy. She had the choice between remaining with the public accounting firm where she was one of a few women on the partnership track or join a fledgling sports media company with an unknown future.

Ultimately, she chose ESPN and what drove her decision was the idea of being part of a company that would deliver something brand new to sports fans.

Fast-forward 28 years, Driessen’s risk paid off.

Today, as CFO and member of the ESPN Board of Directors, she oversees all of the company’s financial operations worldwide and serves as the financial advisor on strategic planning for all acquisitions, new business ventures and programming initiatives. Driessen leads a team of 200 employees who play a key role in negotiating ESPN’s major multimedia programming rights.

Also, as a result of her strong business acumen ESPN has programming rights to Major League BaseballMonday Night Football, the RoseSugar and Orange Bowls, the ACC, The Pac 12 and the Big 12, US Open Tennis, and The Master’s and British Open golf.

Recently, Sports Illustrated ranked Driessen third on its list of the most influential women in sports. However, given that she’s a game changer and has her finger on the pulse of the future of sports media and finance, perhaps there’s an even stronger argument to rank her as the most powerful women in sports.

Forbes caught with Driessen to talk about her tenure at ESPN, the future of the sports industry, and her advice for the next generation of sports executives.

Alana Glass: Describe your current role and responsibilities with ESPN?

Christine Driessen: I have a seat at the table for any activity and business decision; what kind of rights are we going to go after, what we are prepared to pay for those rights, and what’s the strategic imperative of those rights to us versus what they might be to a competitor.

I work with our international group on businesses we want to be in and think have the long-term growth potential. As well as the day-to-day operations of ensuring that we are the most cost-efficient as we go to market from programming, production, marketing, sales, and all the administrative sides of the business.

That all rolls into an annual plan and a five‑year plan and we spend a lot of time with the Walt Disney Corporation as to what those goals and aspirations may be for our business. I set those goals and priorities from a financial standpoint. I have my hand in everything and depending on the priority, and the issue at hand we will spend more time on one thing versus another.

AG: You play a significant part in bringing sports programming to our televisions, smart phones, and tablets. How do you prepare for negotiations and what is your role?

CD: We have a collaborative effort as we prepare for a rights negotiation. What is unique in the way we operate is we’ll take input from all the respective groups that have a point of view on a potential renewal or a new negotiation. We want to understand the perspective of the brand manager, the marketing team, the ratings group, and the research team where a sport may be in its life cycle. We talk to the sales team on the revenue side to ensure we understand the importance of that particular deal to our distribution agreements and delivering content to the distributors who pay us monthly affiliate fees.

Then my team puts together the financial information as to what we’re prepared to pay for any one deal and the impact of having it or not having it. There is a strategy that weighs, there’s financial information that weighs in, and ultimately we prepare a package that the executive team and the CEO can understand and with the pros and cons of each one.

AG: You mentioned strategy; can you provide an example of a possible strategy? What role does strategy play in terms of competition or a bringing a particular event or sport to your audience?

CD: Strategy can play a lot of different roles for instance in tennis, the USTA as a perfect example. We looked at that property, and we felt we could drive avidity for the USTA because of the depth of our media coverage, the depth of our media platforms, and our ability to cover that sport differently than anyone had done to date.

I think that strategy is where we can take something and because of where we are, and the position we have within the media industry and platforms we deliver content to we have the ability to grow that sport.

There are other things we’ve passed on where the competition conversation may come in a little bit more; where the value to us may not be as significant as the value in someone else’s hands. Ultimately, it comes down to what someone’s prepared to pay and in those cases our competitors are prepared to pay more than us. So it depends on the individual property as well as the individual opportunity for us.

AG: So it sounds like what your competitors can and cannot offer plays a role in some of your decision making. How does ESPN approach its competitors?

CD: First of all I’d probably say that we thrive with competition. It always forces us to be on our toes and challenge our teams. It sharpens everybody who’s involved. We don’t shy from competition. We never have. We’ve had competition since the day I came here and since 1979 when we launched. The competition may be heightened in the last 18 months, and you’re seeing all the players investing smartly trying to present sports in the best way.

No one can sit on their laurels, and I believe that we have always done extremely well when there is strong competition. I think Fox, NBC and CBS will all do well. We all benefit from live sports and its appeal to the consumer.

AG: What is ESPN’s influence on our sports culture?

CD: After 34 years in the business, we have established ourselves as the leading sports media company in the country. We know that fans come to us for live events, breaking news, analysis, opinions and all things sports.

ESPN has had an incredible impact on heightening fans awareness of new sports and underserved sports. We put action sports on the map with the X Games, and now it’s an Olympic sport.  Our influence in women’s sports is growing with our investment in the WNBA, Womens’ College BB and the NCAA tournament, and the launch of espnW and most recently the Nine for IX films. In addition, our enhanced coverage of all college sports through ESPNU and our core networks has offered more and more college sports content to fans around the country. Through our digital presence, we’ve also expanded and enhanced the coverage of cricket in this country and around the world through ESPN3 and ESPNCricinfo.

We are extremely proud of The V Foundation for cancer research, which was founded 20 years ago by ESPN and the late Jim Valvano.   We have raised more than $100 million for cancer research, a disease that impacts so many people around the world.

AG:  In addition to ESPN’s business accomplishments, what are your greatest professional accomplishments?

CD: From a professional standpoint in my tenure, I’ve attempted to be a role model for women in this company as a beacon of light to demonstrate that you can have a great career and a demanding career. But also have a family and work-life balance and give back to the people you work with and give them the opportunity to develop and grow.

I’ve developed an executive women’s forum where the top 50 women in the company meet quarterly to raise issues that are unique to the females in this company, as well as develop next-generation of leadership and mentoring. That’s all part of the role that excites me at this point in my career. It’s time to give back, there are tangible things I can do because of my position that affords me the ability to have that influence.

AG:  What other challenges do you encounter in your role as CFO?

CD: A challenge for any CFO but especially for me is balancing the desire and commitment to grow financially year after year with the decisions we make on investments, and the ability to recognize and act when things are not going as planned.

The balancing act of knowing when to pull the plug or move on to something else and refocus our direction is a challenge every day just because it’s a natural tendency to say “after a few more months, we’ll get it right.” In the world we all live in with the financial requirements put upon all of us we don’t have that luxury anymore.

AG: What is a specific example where you had to make a difficult decision and pull the plug on a project?

CD: The biggest one from a financial standpoint was the mobile phone where we decided to be in the business completely vertical. It wasn’t long after we started manufacturing phones that we realized that our expertise was in the development of the content and not in the manufacturing of and design of phones.

There we did move quickly to make the decision that we were going to focus on what we were good at which is content development and product development. We have the best mobile sites, the best mobile apps in the sports business and I that’s a testament to refocusing. Out of that experiment we developed great content.

The second is 3D.  We announced this past summer that we were going to disband that operation, and that’s where we had an honest and critical assessment of what is the audience and what is the appetite of the sports fan. Is it worth the investment we’re making from a production and content standpoint? We concluded that, at this point, we couldn’t reconcile that continued investment given where the consumer was on 3D. Those are two live examples and the kind of challenges we’re looking at all the time.

AG: Let’s talk briefly about the future. What do you envision for your professional future and ESPN’s future?

CD: As I look at the next three to five years it’s an extremely exciting time to be in the media business.

How we will navigate ourselves through that whether it’s in the rights we obtain and the depth and breadth of those rights to deal with new transmission and technology delivered services is fascinating for anybody in this business. I hope to see more emerging business and new sports where we can have an even more positive influence on the people who love sports.

AG: Do you have any advice for young professionals who are striving to model your career in the sports industry?

CD: As I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seen a lot of people succeed and not succeed, the thread that seems to occur in the successful people is the sooner you can learn to be an excellent communicator the more successful you will be, and you’ll attain goals quicker. So many people spend time trying to anticipate what someone wants to hear that they lack and don’t have the maturity to have excellent communication skills.

Also, the ability to have passion for what you do and to motivate people through that passion; your attitude towards your job is critically important as a motivating tool. Finally, I think to be a trusted influencer where you have integrity and honesty and the courage to speak up is lacking in today’s business world. I hope we can encourage people to demonstrate those traits because those are leaders who can have a positive influence on a business.

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How America Brands Female Athletes

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Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar starts her women's 800m round 1 heat during the London 2012 Olympic GamesAmerica’s Sweetheart. Hot. Sexy. Exotic. Girl Next Door.

These are labels used to describe the world’s most accomplished female athletes including former gymnast and Olympic gold medalist, Mary Lou Retton; NASCAR driver, Danica Patrick; former professional beach volleyball player, Gabrielle Reece; Olympic hurdler, Lolo Jones; and former world number one professional tennis player,Chris Evert.

Athletic accomplishments are supposed to speak entirely for themselves. But in the world of women’s sports the way a female athlete looks adds another layer of scrutiny. The value placed on appearance rather than achievements is difference between a woman excelling in her chosen field or having to relying on alternative revenue streams.

Tonight, ESPN films and espnW explore the double standard placed on women to be dominant athletes on the field and sexy off of it in the Nine for IX film Branded (August 27 on ESPN 8 pm ET).

Executive produced by Robin Roberts and Jane Rosenthal, and directed byHeidi Ewing and Rachel GradyBranded explores the question: can women’s sports ever gain an equal footing with their male counterparts or will sex always override achievement?

“You look at a male athlete, and they can make their entire living based off of their skill. For a female athlete we make most of our money on the side,” said Hope Solo, a professional soccer player who is featured in the documentary.

How did we get here?

“Girls get the message from early on that what’s most important is how they look; that their value and worth depends on it. And boys get the message that this is what is important about girls,” said Jean Kilbourne, EdD, Senior Scholar Wellesley Centers for Women.

And according to renowned historian and feminist author, Barbara J. Berg, PhD, “Patriarchy really is America’s default setting. Where men hold the positions of privilege and power, and where women very often are treated as second-class citizens.”

No matter what women achieve, we still live in a culture where a woman’s value is judged on her appearance; if you are very beautiful and attractive you can succeed. Being strong, smart, and accomplished is not enough, and this mind-set has trickled down to sports.

Branded offers poignant examples of evolution of this phenomenon.

In the 70’s, Evert was the first female athlete to cross the $1 million mark in endorsements based on her skill and girl next door image. However, equally accomplished but less feminine athletes, such as Martina Navratilova, were not offered similar opportunities. In the 80’s, Retton was the most visible female athlete who endorsed IBM, AT&T, Energizer, McDonald’s, and Wheaties. Given her visibility, advisors told her to smile and not say anything that could possibly upset people, which left her feeling voiceless.

The 90’s ushered in an era where women’s team sports were front and center. The WNBA launched in 1997 and today continues to be the longest running women’s professional basketball league is sports history. The women of the WNBA are tough and competitive, and at times accused of being too physical. Some suggest that the league should take greater strides in the direction of femininity to attract more viewers. Do we honestly want fans, especially young girls and boys, to think that wearing tight short shorts is more valuable than hitting a three point shot? Besides the WNBA knows its core audience would not accept stooping to the lowest male chromosome just to increase ratings.

Juxtaposed with the WNBA, is Patrick who is a talented auto racing driver and not shy about exploiting her sex appeal to attract fans and sponsors. Yes, her Go Daddy commercials sting and women across America cringe every time they air. However, in a male dominated sport where gaining corporate sponsorships directly impacts performance on the track, have we given Patrick much of a choice?

Yes, sports is a business, but is it fair that a segment of athletes must rely on their beauty in order to fully participate? Ultimately, we have to find a way to transform our culture, awaken our consciousness, and change minds.

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In Its 17th Season, The WNBA Continues To Defy Odds

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logoThe WNBA is well-managed but is fighting for its life,” said a world-renowned sports journalist.

My jaw dropped when I read that statement earlier this year. Since 1997, the WNBA’s inaugural season, the same recycled storyline has been printed year after year.

Despite continued criticism and predictions of failure, the longest-running women’s professional basketball league in the U.S. is holding its own and not folding anytime soon.

It’s the WNBA’s 17th season, viewership is up +86% on NBA TV and up +41% on ESPN2Attendance is up .3% but more importantly gate receipts are up +18%.Merchandise sales are up +36% with the “3 to See” rookies claiming the top three spots on the league’s top-selling jersey list. Additionally, national brands are on board as key sponsors, including State Farm Insurance, Jamba Juice, Boost Mobile, and most recently, Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Announced this week, the new partnership with P&G blends, the world’s largest and most profitable consumer packaged goods company, with the WNBA’s key-markets and its commitment to empowering women and girls. In 2012, P&G amassed $83.6 billion in sales and more than $10 billion in net earnings. Its beauty, grooming, and healthcare household names, such as Secret, Tampax, Cover Girl, and My Black is Beautiful, are focal points of the multi-brand partnership.

It’s the WNBA’s 17th season, and it is time to retire the outdated rhetoric.

“I believe we are going to look back at the 17thseason and say it was a significant summer in the history and development of the WNBA,” said WNBA President Laurel J. Richie.

Forbes.com caught up with President Richie to discuss the league’s business partnerships, the rebranding initiative, and the 2013 All-Star Game; here are highlights from her remarks.

On the Partnership with Procter & Gamble

Richie: I had the opportunity to connect with P&G at an ESPNW summit and we had a great conversation. We spent a couple of days with a larger group talking about women’s sports and the WNBA in particular. I knew that they were a partner of ours, so I wanted to reengage in discussions with them. As they understood more about what we are trying to do and where the WNBA is today, and in thinking of some of the terrific programming that they have with My Black is Beautiful and Imagine the Future, it made sense for us to come together.

On the Marquee Partnership with Boost Mobile

Richie: We continue to be excited about being in partnership with Boost Mobile. It’s All About The Wwas a creative concept that they came up with, and we were thrilled with. My team teases me, in that meeting, they had not even finished presenting, and I said yes. I knew it was such a big and powerful idea. When brands are aligned, it creates a real opportunity for a terrific creative expression.

On the WNBA’s “3 to See” Rookies

Richie: We’re seeing this wonderful combination of great energy and excitement around our rookies, but also I would say significant breakout performances from our veterans. The combination has taken the level of competition to new heights. They’ve garnered a lot of attention, and they have brought additional viewers and fans.  Not only did we have high expectations for these rookies, but the broader sports community, as well.  I was amazed at the level of discussion taking place between the end of the college season, our draft, which was in primetime for the first time, and then their first games.

On Attendance Figures

Richie: I literally watch the attendance numbers every morning, and there’s some up and down. I think a lot of that has to do with what the schedule looks like. For many teams camp days and school days are big attendance drivers. My guess is our attendance will be solid this year. We’ll have to wait until we get a little bit further and get some of the signature game day events under our belt. But I am encouraged by the renewal rates of our season ticket holders and what we’re seeing as an uptick in individual sales and game day sales.

On Rebranding the WNBA

Richie: The rebranding is both visual and how we talk about the league. It is the total package that has been very well received by fans, players, and our partners. One, they appreciated that the catalyst for the rebranding was to make sure that our visual identity was a true reflection of the athleticism and diversity of today’s players. The second piece was making sure that it felt fresh and contemporary. People have said it is part of the many reasons why fans are feeling a renewed sense of energy and excitement about the WNBA.

On the 2013 All-Star Game

Richie: I think fans are going to see great basketball this weekend. It’s always interesting to see the fan choices for the starting lineup, and I think they did a good job. There’s no one on the list that you’re not excited to see both as an individual player and playing together.

For more about the WNBA, tune into the Boost Mobile 2013 WNBA All-Star Game, hosted by the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, airing on ABC Saturday, July 27, at 3:30 p.m.

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Pat XO: ESPN’s Love Letter To Pat Summitt

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imagesI consider myself to be one of the luckiest sports fan. My life has been touched by legendary women’s basketball coach, Pat Head Summitt. Not once, but twice.

The first occasion occurred in the early ‘90s when I attended a girl’s basketball camp at the University of Tennessee. That summer I was introduced to Lady Vol basketball. Summitt’s words of wisdom gave me confidence, and made believe that I could do anything that I set my mind to. That experience fundamentally altered the trajectory of my life.

The second instance was a chance encounter earlier this year when I attended the Tribeca Film Festival screening of ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary,Pat XO.

The film, produced by Robin Roberts and co-directed by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters, is one of nine documentary films about women in sports inspired by the 40th Anniversary of Title IX.

Pat XO airs tonight (Tuesday, July 9, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) and tells the story of Summitt’s unprecedented 38-year coaching career, which was abruptly cut short after her diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

“There is none higher than Pat Summitt when it comes to women’s sports and for what she’s done for athletes, coaches, and not only for the world of sports, but women in general.”

If you could turn a love letter into a film, it would be Pat XO. Summitt’s closest friends, family, colleagues, and former players provide personal accounts of their relationship, all the while showing their love and appreciation for a coach who laid the foundation for where women’s sports are today. ESPN describes Pat XO as a film by those who were coached, taught, transformed and elevated by Summitt.

No one has been more impacted by Summitt’s achievements than her son, Ross “Tyler” Summitt. Ever since Tyler’s birth, which nearly occurred during a recruiting trip, he has been by her side and a major focal point of her coaching career. Whether it was his presence on the bench or standing next to her as she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he has seen it all. So it’s fitting that Tyler, one person who without question is Summitt’s rock, narrates and candidly interviews her throughout the documentary.

“We thought the most comfortable she’d ever be is sitting with her son Tyler,” said filmmakers Lax and Stern Winters. “We put our heads together, and we thought of the idea of making a scrapbook compiled of imagery that could spark stories and memories.”

Tyler delicately guides Summitt through her fondest memories of being the winningest coach in NCAA history for men’s and women’s teams, which includes 18 trips to the Final Four8 NCAA National Championships, and 16 SEC titles.

Yes, Summitt taught her players X’s and O’s. But the film illustrates that her coaching legacy goes far beyond 1098 victories. She changed lives for the better by instilling values and teaching memorable life lessons.

Summitt taught lessons in leadership. She led by example and never asked anyone to do anything that she would not do herself. She taught the value of being accountable, and she made sure that her players understood their role and did it well. And Summitt taught the importance toughness. She often told her players that they could decide right off if they were going to be soft or tough, and they were not allowed to give her excuses or play the victim.

Summitt herself has chosen not to play the victim. In a rare moment during the film, she was quite emotional describing her departure from coaching. She said, “It was hard because I didn’t want to, but I felt like I needed to step down.” But in true Summitt fashion, she declares that the Pat Summitt Foundation is a new opportunity to accomplish something even bigger in her life.

“There are very few people who have the impact that she has had on so many,” said Roberts. “The beauty of Pat Summitt is that a great leader doesn’t tell you, they show you, and she is continuing to do that.”

At the conclusion of the screening, I approached Summitt and thanked her for revolutionizing women’s sports. I told her my story, and I shared how much her coaching meant to me all these years later. Summitt listened attentively, congratulated me, and gave me what I was not expecting – a hug.

It’s the same hug that she gave to her 161 players and countless supporters throughout the years. Even though Summitt is no longer on the sidelines, she is still coaching and teaching us to live like champions.

Pat XO

Good Night Sports Fans, 

Alana

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Inbee Park, Sebonack Golf Club Stage A Historic U.S. Women’s Open

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p1-Park

This story originally appeared on Forbes.com (7/1/2013)

Southampton, New York is known as the glamorous vacation destination for some of the wealthiest people in the world. Last month, FORBES featured its affluent neighborhood, Meadow Lane, where in 2012, the median sale price for a home was upwards of $18 million.

Southhampton is also home to theSebonack Golf Club, which sits on 300-acres overlooking the Peconic Bay. The course is the brain-child of Michael Pascucci, the founder and owner of Long Island’s WLNY-TV Channel 55. And in addition to being a media mogul, his distinct claim-to-fame is being the high school teammate of NFL Hall-of-Fammer, Jim Brown.

When Pascucci acquired the pristine property in 2001 for $46 million, he promised that the course would maintain as natural to the true landscape. To do so, he used $115 million of his own resources and enlisted legendary golfer, Jack Nicklaus, and eco-sensitive golf architect, Tom Doak, to serve as co-designers.

“The golf course was really here,” said Pascucci of the property. “It just didn’t have greens and tee boxes and a couple of bunkers that have been cut out.”

When the private golf club opened in 2006, it joined a prestigious list of clubs in the Hamptons including Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (four-time U.S. Open site and founding USGA Member Club) and The National Golf Links of America (1922 and 2013 Walker Cup). Nevertheless, Pascucci did not shy away from hosting a national championship and putting the course to the test.

Well, more like putting the world’s best female golfer to the test.

Sebonack Golf Club welcomed its first major championship when it hosted the68th U.S. Women’s Open Championship (June 27-30). The championship began with a156-player field that were among a record 1,420 entries besting the previous record of 1,364 which was set in 2012 at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin. The field represented a diverse array of players from 22 countries and ranging in ages from 14-53 years old.

“The U.S. Women’s Open continues to serve as the premier venue for women’s championships in the game, testing the finest players in the world on the finest courses in America,” said Dot Paluck, Chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee.

In the end, Inbee Park, the 24-year old Korean, captured the 2013 U.S. Open Women’s Championship. Entering as the favorite after winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the Wegman’s LPGA Championship, Park is the first player of the modern era to capture three straight major titles to begin a season (1950 was the last time this feat was accomplished). And further putting her win into perspective, on the men’s side, only Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods have accomplished similar victories.

“To win the first three majors is monumental,” said Nancy Lopez, Hall-of-Famer and LPGA Champion. “I never thought about trying to do that. You set majors as a goal, but to win them and win three of them that’s tough.”

Park’s string of success follows the pattern of Asian players dominating the LPGA Tour as of late. An Asian player has won the last nine major championships, and Korean players have won six of the last eight majors. The top three finishers at the U.S. Women’s Open were Korean golfers including Park, I.K. Kim, and So Yeon Ryu, who won $585,000, $350,000, and $217,958 respectively. American golfers Paula Creamer and Angela Stanford tied for fourth along with England’s Jodi Ewart Shadoff who each earned $127,972.

LPGA Commission, Michael Whan was asked how the dominance from Korea affects the LPGA’s American business model. He said, “A lot of our sponsors are based in the U.S., but we have a global business as well.” He went on to comment, “Our business does the same thing. We might be playing here at Sebonack, but 160 countries will be watching us.”

Lopez also commented on the state of the game by saying, “I think it is hard for Americans to watch players from other countries winning all the time, and that’s not a negative. It would bring a lot of interest if we can get the number one player in the U.S. playing well against Inbee Park, someone who can go head-to-head against her. It would bring that excitement and those rivalries that we are missing right now.”

Good Night Sports Fans,

Alana

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