The college intern struck ESPN sales and marketing executive Sean Bratches as a good fit for the company — he was a fun kid, but had a strong work ethic, too. And he really had his heart set on sales and marketing.
“We got along famously,” Bratches said.
When the intern, David Preschlack, graduated the next year from Denison University (the alma mater of the top sales and marketing guy, George Bodenheimer), Bratches didn’t have any openings available. So he got Preschlack a gig in ESPN’s videotape library and promised that he’d come calling as soon as there was an opening.
“I got a call from David’s mother, unbeknownst to him, because she was worried since the job had no insurance benefits,” Bratches said. “I told her things would work out well for David.”
They certainly did, though not on his first day on the job. “I showed up in a suit and tie and I had the tie off in 10 seconds, because I spent the first two weeks building shelving units to house tapes in a storage area,” Preschlack recalled.
After working overnight shifts in the video library, he’d hang out in the sales and marketing department just to learn and keep his presence known, and within 10 months he had an entry-level sales support job. He then climbed his way up the ladder to senior vice president of national accounts, then to senior VP overseeing field sales, national accounts, affiliate ad sales and affiliate marketing for all Disney and ESPN products and services in the U.S.
POISED FOR MORE
Today, Preschlack, 40, is executive vice president, affiliate sales and marketing, Disney & ESPN Networks. But Bratches, ESPN’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, believes there are still more rungs for Preschlack to climb.
“I’m confident he has the acumen the personality and the skill set so he is well-positioned to do more in the company,” Bratches said. That combination has also earned Preschlack this year’s NCTA Vanguard Award for Young Leadership.
Preschlack’s portfolio includes all matters relating to domestic distribution of Disney and ESPN’s cable and satellite networks. He has overseen everything from the retransmission consent agreements for The Walt Disney Co.’s 10 ABCowned stations to the licensing of all broadband, mobile and audio content. He secured the first ever unique video-on-demand and subscription VOD deals and his team was responsible in 2010 for the first-ever live, authenticated networks, when ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN Buzzer Beater and Goal Line (the latter two of which he helped launch) became available online to fans with service from affiliate operators.
“He looks at the big picture but also understands the extremely complex details in negotiations,” Bratches said. “He is cautious and practical and has foresight.”
Those traits bore fruit earlier this year when Dish Network sued ESPN for $150 million on four breach-of-contract cases. In the end, ESPN was held responsible for less than $5 million in damages, and Preschlack drew notice for his unwavering presence at the trial, where he testified that he saw the suit as an attack on his integrity.
Preschlack, who grew up outside of Chicago, has had a deep understanding of business and deal-making since his childhood — his father worked in management and there were always senior level executives around. When he was 10, he even got to go with his father to the White House for a special event. His father had grown up in the Bronx, N.Y., the child of immigrants, before attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joining the U.S. Air Force and then attending Harvard Business School. “He was a huge influence on me,” Preschlack said, praising his father, with whom he remains close, for “never putting any pressure on me. His attitude was, “I’m here for you but this life is yours to create.’ ”
Preschlack feels fortunate that he found his path early. “I immediately knew I wanted to get into sales and marketing,” he said. He enjoyed the steep learning curve as he took on more responsibilities and said he succeeded in part because of the advice of numerous mentors, including Bratches and Bodenheimer.
He remembers feeling nervous the first time he had to manage a regional sales team, but was told by one mentor, “Whenever someone comes in and asks if you have five minutes, you say yes.”
It was an important first step in becoming a leader. “I’ve gotten to be a better listener in part because of my experience but also because I’m more comfortable in my own skin,” he said, adding, “I no longer feel I have to have every answer, though I have to know how to get it. I’ve learned to let others take the lead and have the spotlight.”
But Preschlack also knows that sometimes he has to lead by putting himself on the line. He recalls the days not so long ago, before iPhones and iPads, when he was one of the executives pushing to get ESPN’s product to be able to be watched anyway, anyhow, anywhere. One day coming back from the airport, Bodenheimer pointed out how much time and money the network was spending on rights deals and technology investment for something that seemed futuristic.
“He asked me, ‘Do you really think we should be doing this?’ ” Preschlack recalled. “I knew I was putting myself out there, but I knew I had to say yes.”
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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.