NAME: Stephanie Druley
TITLE: Senior VP, Event and Studio Production
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Druley was the first woman to produce an NFL pregame show; she also launched two new ESPN networks and oversees remote production and studio shows for college sports, the NFL and MLB.
QUOTABLE: “When I got promoted to this role, a number of women reached out because they were so happy for me. It’s a groundbreaking position. I feel the weight of that.”
In 1998, John Elway made his famous “helicopter” dive into Super Bowl history, a moment forever captured by photographers covering the game. In the end zone, from one angle, you can see a woman’s face peering around a cameraman to get a better look at this epic play. That face belongs to Stephanie Druley, who grew up a die-hard football fan, always wanted to attend a Super Bowl and who still can’t believe her good fortune that day.
But it wasn’t luck that brought her to that game — and sixteen other Super Bowls. Druley, ESPN’s senior vice president of event and studio production, is one of this year’s Wonder Women, not because she finds herself in the right place at the right time but because she boldly takes the chances and seizes the opportunities that land her there.
Growing Up a Sports Fan
Druley grew up in Houston in a passionate sports household — the family had season tickets to Oilers games. Druley was at the University of Texas in 1986 when the Astros faced off against the New York Mets in a dramatic National League Championship Series and even “ran a wire up my sleeve” so she could secretly listen to Game 6 on the radio while attending class. (Ironically, the game lasted nearly five hours so she got to watch plenty of it after class ended.)
“At that age, I didn’t have a long-term career goal but I knew I wanted a job in sports and I wanted to work on the NFL,” she said. So, Druley took her first chance, leaving home, moving to Connecticut as a production assistant at ESPN. It was thrilling and a great entree but “it was hard being so far from my family.”
After a few years, Druley took another good risk: She quit and moved back to Houston to freelance. Most of her freelance work was still with ESPN, field producing for Pam Oliver. “I got a ton of experience in the field,” she said.
She later returned to Bristol, Conn., as an associate producer on NFL Countdown, producing features every week. Had ESPN then had a feature producer position, her career might have followed a different path. Instead, Druley made her goal to become the first woman to produce an NFL pregame show. “I created a path for myself that was unusual,” she said. That’s an understatement: When Jay Levy was handling both the producer role and coordinating producer role, Druley offered her services “basically as an apprentice” so she could learn how to handle the position.
“I was blindly naïve and confident,” she said. Putting in the extra time paid off quickly. “By the middle of the season I was sometimes sitting in the producer’s chair and the next year I was producing the show.”
All of these experiences helped as she continued her rise. “I appreciate the fact that the foundation of her career is so similar to those that she leads — she has years of TV production chops — she knows who we are and what we need because it is the same ladder that she climbed,” said Lee Fitting, ESPN vice president of college sports production. Druley excels as a boss because “she is decisive,” he added, but also “a great listener.”
Druley said being a woman has never held her back, since she’d built “equity” with talent and executives over the years, demonstrating “my deep knowledge and love for the sport.” She said ESPN has always provided opportunities for women and other minorities. “If you are really good the possibilities are endless,” she said, acknowledging that she felt pushed to succeed because failing would reflect badly on all women in sports.
When ESPN was looking to partner with Druley’s alma mater and launch the Longhorn Network in 2011, she was tempted to take on the job, but wary until ESPN execs convinced Druley to take the plunge. “People said, ‘How often do you get the chance to start a network?’ ” she recalled. “I learned to deal with programming, sales and affiliate relations.”
The former pregame expert was suddenly responsible for 175 live events a year. There was, she said, something special about “flipping the switch” to start something brand new.
Winning With Teamwork
“Building and launching something new requires an immense amount of collaboration and Steph is the ultimate team player,” said Justin Connolly, executive vice president, Disney and ESPN affiliate sales and marketing. “She finds ways to get things done even in the most difficult situations.”
Druley was then tasked with launching the SEC Network three years later. In her current role she has taken responsibility for ESPN’s entire remote production portfolio and studio shows for college sports, the National Football League and Major League Baseball and this year, added international and Spanish-language production efforts to her busy schedule. “I’m still wrapping my arms around the scope of all that,” she said.
Druley said she has a “huge responsibility” as a woman to exceed expectations but also to reach back down the ladder to help others. “I make sure I’m putting other women in positions of power and responsibility.”
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Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.