Imagine 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 Baseball, Monday Night Football, the Rose, Sugar 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.