The Rights Queen

Whether on TV or in person, Christine Driessen enjoys college athletics. “I love college football and basketball. I’ve always been a big fan; it’s so unpredictable,” she says. “Professional sports just have a different flavor for me.”

But when you mention the recent hardwood fortunes of her alma mater, she gets defensive.

“When I went to Fordham, Digger Phelps [now an ESPN analyst] was the coach my freshman year,” she says. “We got foiled [when he left to coach Notre Dame]. Basketball was big back then.”

This from the woman who tends to be on the offensive for sports giant ESPN. As executive vice president and chief financial officer Driessen has oversight of the company’s financial operations and serves as financial advisor on strategic planning for acquisitions, new business ventures and programming initiatives. ESPN’s management information services department also reports to Driessen, who also has fiscal responsibilities over sister company, ABC Sports, too.

That puts the 20-year company veteran front and center with executives in rights deals that often involve hundreds and even billions of dollars.

“Christine’s leadership, her strategic thinking, financial expertise, her ability to assess business models quickly and decisively, have all been important factors in her outstanding career and ESPN’s success,” ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer says.

A scorecard shows that 2005 was an extremely busy and expensive year as ESPN inked long-term renewal pacts with Major League Baseball and the World Cup, and regained the rights to NASCAR. Beginning in September, ESPN will become the home to Monday Night Football, as ABC punted after 36 years on the primetime institution.

Asked if ESPN will be profitable with the eight-year, $8.8 billion contract, Driessen says: “Absolutely, we wouldn’t have paid it otherwise. We’re looking not just to be a TV partner, but a multimedia platform rights-holder. We look at all the assets it’s driving; that’s how we get to the financial decision.”

Driessen labeled ESPN’s first National Football League pact in 1987 “its most important because it put us on the map.” But the varied vehicles today are making long-term rights deal negotiations “much more complex. We have to think of where business is going, where new platforms may emerge. Six months ago, we couldn’t have projected we would have a video iPod revenue stream,” she says. “Our mission statement is to serve the fan, no matter where they are and on what platform. That’s why rights-holders must recognize that we are multimedia asset player.”

But some distributors have a love/hate relationship, maintaining that ESPN’s monthly license fee, the highest in basic cable, is the byproduct of the programmer controlling more and more rights.

“Despite the rhetoric you hear in the press, we have actually partnered well with cable operators,” she counters, adding that ESPN helps its carriers drive new platforms: “We turn on their invested capital. We’ve proven over time that we’ll give you first-mover advantage for new offerings.”

She also wants to dispel a myth: That she wields a bottomless purse for Bodenheimer and ESPN.

“No, there’s no open checkbook,” she laughs. “He’s as tough as I am when it comes to how we spend our money.”

To that end, ESPN/ABC recently passed on renewing the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour and skated away from the National Hockey League.

“We couldn’t make the economics work for what they were looking for,” she says. “You’ll see us really focus on what we think will drive our business long-term.”

In college, Driessen wanted to be a medical researcher. But in sophomore year she couldn’t “handle the labs anymore. I wanted to get more interactive with people. I was always good with math. My dad was a CPA, so I decided to go that route.”

Despite following in her father’s footsteps, Driessen cites her mom as her biggest mentor: “She taught me two things: Shoot for the stars. If you’re not shooting for them, no one else will force you to do it. And anything’s possible with hard work”

Driessen was working for public accounting firm Peat Marwick & Mitchell in 1985, handling most of the firm’s entertainment clients when she first encountered ESPN.

“ABC was one of my bigger [clients]. I was assigned to do the acquisition audit [for ESPN] and was quite intrigued with product,” she recalls. “They were looking for someone to come in to be their controller, implement some discipline. They were just starting to take off and grow.” She was hired by then president Bill Grimes.

Two decades later she has few regrets. The best part of her job is its “very dynamic environment. I work for a boss who challenges us on how we can make something different than what we have today. It’s challenging.”

Extensive traveling — she sits on the boards of directors of many of ESPN’s international interests — is the hardest part.

“Sometimes I don’t have the time to sit back and think a little bit globally, or have the extra 10 minutes to be with my family,” she says. “It’s a constant balancing act that I give the appropriate level of priority to all those particular needs, whether being a wife, mother [her daughter is a high school senior, her son a sophomore] or an executive.”

Bodenheimer says she does it all quite well: “She is totally dedicated to her family, and somehow in the midst of international travel supporting ESPN’s growth overseas and serving on executive boards, she finds time to volunteer for women’s organizations and her alma mater and mentor others.”