Today’s change agents have to be courageous and able to galvanize people. You must embrace bold decisions—and accept the consequences along the way, too.
—Sean Bratches, Executive Vice President, Sales & Marketing at ESPN
Sean has played a key role in ESPN’s exponential growth throughout several decades of change. He was part of the core team that helped ESPN grow from a scrappy cable player into the world’s most-recognized sports media brand. Sean holds the honor of being inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable 2014 Hall of Fame Class, and has received two Vanguard Awards, the cable industry’s most prestigious award. He has been listed in the CableFAX 100 of “cable’s 100 heavy hitters” since 1999, and in recent years, has been listed in the top 20. The Sports Business Journal recently named him one of the top 50 most powerful people in sports.
As EVP Sales & Marketing at ESPN, Sean leads a sales and marketing team that provides national advertisers access to the premier media and marketing platforms and content under the ESPN umbrella, which includes the company’s six domestic cable television networks: ABC Sports, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, ESPN International, and ESPN’s mobile properties. Sean also oversees the first unified sales organization that represents The Walt Disney Company’s premier collection of sports assets across all media platforms. In addition, Bratches oversees all distribution, licensing, marketing and local advertising sales for the domestic cable and satellite networks of The Walt Disney Company to its multi-channel affiliates. These assets include: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNEWS, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD, ESPNEWS HD, ESPNU HD, ESPN3D, ESPN3, ABC Family, ABC Family HD, Disney Channel, Disney Channel HD, SOAPnet, Disney XD and Disney XD HD. He also is responsible for the domestic distribution of related HDTV, broadband, video-on-demand, subscription video-on-demand, interactive television, pay-per-view, Spanish-language, and sports syndication products.
Sean began his career in advertising sales. After graduating from RIT, he honed his media sales skills at Storer Television Sales Inc., first in New York, then in Dallas. In 1988, he returned to New York to begin his career with ESPN. A year later, he was on the team that set in motion a series of events that transformed ESPN into the media powerhouse it is today.
BS in Business Administration from College of Business (1991)
- What led you to choose RIT?
I was lucky to have a great role model who ignited a spark that became a lifelong passion. I was at high school in White Plains, New York, and saw a family member doing extremely well in the broadcast sales business. He was highly regarded in the family but, above all, he was passionate about what he did. His enthusiasm triggered my own interest in broadcast, at which point I realized I needed to acquire skills that would serve me in the media business. So, when RIT approached me to attend the school and play lacrosse, I seized the opportunity to further my interest in two areas: sports and business.
- How did RIT prepare you for early changes in you professional career?
RI took courses in advertising and marketing that grounded me in the fundamentals of the media business. And these were extremely practical, not theoretical courses. All the professors who taught me had real-world experiences in the business environment — one owned an ad agency. To me, that is what sets RIT apart from many other schools: applied learning.
Two core skills were continually instilled into us at RIT: collaboration and teamwork. We were assigned into workgroups that required us to overcome our own biases and egos, collaborate and present effectively — collaboration was also the underpinning of the relationship with our professors. These in-class experiences, coupled with my lacrosse activities, helped me to develop leadership and teamwork traits that have been invaluable throughout my career. Bill Tierney, our lacrosse coach, often said: “One bad pass breeds another” — that’s something I still think about often because it has such resonance in the workplace.
- The biggest challenge that business leaders face today?
I think most business leaders would agree that the business landscape has never experienced more sustained and impactful change. The proliferation of new technologies and the forces of the global marketplace have required all business leaders to embrace change. If you don’t adapt to these changes, your business will fail.
ESPN is a classic example of this. The rate of change has accelerated exponentially due to the introduction and scaling of technology, and through intense fan adaptation. At the same time, our audience has changed massively with the arrival of different demographic groups such as millennials. We’ve had to adapt to that by rethinking every aspect of our business—in many ways, we have competed and innovated against ourselves.
For example, mobile was both a huge opportunity and threat to our business. The proliferation of mobile devices, and the capacity for viewers to consume content in ways that proved challenging for us to monetize, required us to consider disruptive change; change that could cannibalize our existing business model. But we knew it had to be done to maintain our leadership as an innovator in our industry. We expect to see change continue to be the underlying constant.
- The Key characteristics that change agents possess?
Fundamentally, I think change agents inspire others to deliver their best. They’re intellectually and technologically curious, and challenge the status quo. They solicit input to make good decisions, and are better at assigning credit than taking credit. At ESPN, we aim to create an environment that fosters tomorrow’s leaders. It’s the duty of any good leader to identify the characteristics of their team and determine who needs room to grow, and who needs coaching to succeed. As I was coming up through the ranks, the people I admired were focused on creating an environment that maximized the value of the people with whom they worked.
- What advice do you have for prospective students?
The very fact that you’re considering RIT tells me you’re focused on positively changing your future, right now. To thrive in business, you will need to adapt quickly and constantly to stay relevant — and that’s tough. But most of all, find something for which you have a passion. Passion is energy. Passionate people make things happen: they over-deliver and ultimately succeed in the face of adversity.