The Sporting Life

Sean Bratches is a player. A cable player. As the gatekeeper to Disney's cable distribution, he has been through some messy negotiations with Cox Communications and other cable operators over ESPN. After all, the sports channel has cable's highest subscriber fees. "It's somewhat invigorating," he says of pressure-cooker negotiations. "We may not always see eye to eye, but we've structured agreements."

Now, as president of distribution for all of Disney's cable networks, Bratches has even more to sell, like SoapNet and Toon Disney.

Sixteen years ago, however, he wasn't exactly sure what cable was selling. He joined the sports channel in 1988, after a stint in local-broadcast ad sales. There were no sales gigs open at ESPN, but a young exec named George Bodenheimer, now head of ESPN and ABC Sports, needed affiliate-sales staffers. Bratches took the plunge.

"I had no idea the affiliate- sales aspect of the business even existed," he recalls. Instead of selling ads, he'd pitch a network. His first assignment: getting ESPN on cable systems in the Northeast. "I cut my teeth traveling to systems in remote areas," he says.

Back then, ESPN consisted of one cable network. Today, the Bristol, Conn.-based sports empire has five, as well as broadband, interactive TV, a high-definition channel, pay-per-view and syndication businesses. What Bratches brings to the table, Bodenheimer says, is a "positive and upbeat style. He's the same can-do person he was when he walked through the door in 1988."

An avid sportsman with a competitive streak, he's a perfect fit for ESPN and Disney.

The Westchester County, N.Y., native played ice hockey and lacrosse for the Rochester Institute of Technology. An outdoor buff who ranks The Great Outdoor Games
as his favorite sporting event, he took his wife to compete in a triathlon on their first date.

Television, however, wasn't instinctive. Bratches decided to pursue TV ad sales after college because he admired his cousin's husband, who worked at CBS sales. Bratches liked his lifestyle and decided to emulate his success.

Although entertaining offers from Petry Television, Blair Television and Storer Television, Bratches opted to move to Dallas and join Storer. Three years later, Storer was dissolved. Bratches headed back to the East Coast and landed at ESPN.

His first big sale for ESPN came in 1992 when the network started pitching a spinoff channel to cable operators. ESPN initially planned to call the channel Sports TV to differentiate it from the mothership. Cable operators were not happy.

"Everybody stood on their desks and grabbed me around the neck and said, 'You have to put ESPN in the name,'" he says. So ESPN2 was hatched. "We knew the power of the brand."

More recently, he has been pushing high-tech brand extensions, such as ESPN HD and ESPN Broadband. With four young sons, Bratches is up on the latest gadgets. In his suburban-Connecticut home, there are three computers and two high-def TV sets. He often hosts HD parties at his house so friends and neighbors can watch sports and big events on the Bratches' fancy HDTV. The gatherings, he says, have "spawned purchases."

What's a current challenge? Pushing broadband properties. Bratches sees this as cable's next big application. Operators, he says, need good video content for broadband, much like they needed channels in the early 1980s. "ESPN Broadband is to the cable modem," he says, "what ESPN, MTV and CNN were to the cable pipe."

Whatever the product, Bratches' sales pitch is simple: "Our guide is to serve the fan better tomorrow than we did today."