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Extending ESPN's Empire

Lee Ann Daly's job is as exciting as it is demanding. Her mission: Keep fans believing they can't live without the ESPN sports empire.

Thanks to people like Daly, the empire is thriving.

Five years ago, she was named the network's top marketing executive, charged with burnishing a brand whose logo is now emblazoned across five U.S. cable networks, 700 radio station affiliates, restaurants, a magazine, and a Web site.

Though her accomplishments are many, Daly is best known for hatching the award-winning "This Is SportsCenter" ad campaign, which endearingly captures athletes hobnobbing with ESPN's less-than-humble on-air talent in wacky situations.

FAN OF ORIGINALS

More recently, Daly, 42, has helped craft the fan-centric message designed to defend ESPN's turf on basic cable in the face of withering public assaults by cable operator Cox Communications Inc. Internally, she has pushed for reaching a broader audience by airing original programming on ESPN, whether a bombastic talk show like Pardon the Interruption
or the controversial drama series, Playmakers.

"We continue to give people a reason to opt in," Daly said.

As senior vice president of marketing, Daly oversees a staff of 42 people whose preoccupation is ensuring that sports fans know where to click to find the next big game.

While Marketing 101 instructs the prudent executive to test-drive a product to avoid a national flop, Daly said the decision to air the "This is SportsCenter" promotion was hers alone.

"Fortunately, I work at a place where the idea that nothing can replace judgment is honored," she said. "It doesn't mean that I never pursue consumer insight, because I do that all the time. I just don't happen to do it for the creative end product."

Daly grew up on the south side of Indianapolis, thinking she would become a cartoonist. Later, she became intrigued with environmental issues.

"I was very interested in water treatment and water purification, because it was the '70s and everyone was interested in the environment, Earth Day and all that other kind of stuff," she recalled.

Daly also comes from a family of accomplished chefs, which explains her degree from the French Culinary Institute to match her undergraduate degree in business and journalism from the University of Indiana. "Some families are musical, some are athletic. I came from a family of cooks, really good cooks," Daly said.

She joined ESPN in 1999 after heating up the agency world at Ammirati Puris Lintas and, before that, for Are These My Shoes?, a comedy-based radio shop she co-founded. In 2000, she was inducted into the American Advertising Federation's Hall of Achievement.

Along the way, Daly learned that branding involves soothing souls averse to change. As ESPN moves away a bit from live sports to help modify its cost base, Daly is helping to midwife that transition.

"I was one of the initiators of original entertainment over here, because I personally believe that when you have a relationship like we do with the fans, that you have an opportunity to create different kinds of programming than just news, information and live sports," she said.

Playmakers, for example, has raised eyebrows — at least among some of those working at the National Football League's New York office. The league has let it be known that the show's portrayal of pro football players in less than heroic terms (e.g. drug use, domestic violence) is harming the league's positioning as "America's game." At press time, ESPN had not yet made a call about bringing the series back for a sophomore season.

"I don't think Playmakers has diluted anybody's brand," Daly countered. "I think that if anything, Playmakers has increased interest among constituencies that are not already core NFL viewers in the idea of the lives of professional athletes who play NFL football."

From a marketing standpoint, Daly said the promotional playbook for Playmakers is complex.

"One of our biggest challenges has been figuring out how can we place the promo, so hard-hitting stuff can run in the right dayparts that don't reach children. And that we can also create communications that compel people to watch even with a promo that is less hard-hitting."

Financially, ESPN is critical to corporate parent The Walt Disney Co. The placement of ESPN on a sports tier would jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue and drive up the network's monthly fee for millions of cable subscribers who sought to maintain the same level of service. Cox, on the other hand, prefers to focus on rate relief for consumers who care nothing for sports.

Within the company, Daly has stressed that ESPN's message in the Cox battle should focus on the fans, who she said would be unhappy to learn their favorite network just went à la carte.

'CONSUMER WOULD LOSE'

"The consumer is going to be the loser," Daly said. "I think probably my biggest contribution is to inform the fans, educate the fans and then let them voice their concerns back. That's actually what our campaign is about."

Daly and staff are embarking on another little piece of business this year: trumpeting the network's silver anniversary, a celebration that features a host of special programming.

"ESPN's 25th anniversary campaign was a chance to hand the mic to the fans and let them bring their voice to our celebration of how much sports really matter in our lives," she said.

Daly, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, Frank Todaro, is expecting the couple's second child in June. Despite the demands of her job, Daly said she learned long ago to separate work and family.

"I call it planting a flag in the ground that says, 'My Life,'" she said. "I say this to a lot of my single friends, 'In the summertime, if you are still at work at 8:30 at night on a Friday, it's your own damn fault.' You've got to leave."