TITLE: Senior Vice President, espnW and Women’s Initiatives
CAREE R HIGHLIGHTS: Before ESPN, Gentile was senior partner, management supervisor at Ogilvy & Mather. As part of ESPN’s office of the president (George Bodenheimer), she was instrumental in creating the “ESPN on ABC” brand, which is used on ABC for sports event and documentary programming. ESPN and ABC are both part of The Walt Disney Co.
QUOTABLE: “I’ve worked on espnW for seven or eight years, but the early years were about research, about just getting started and building a team. It really wasn’t until about four years ago that I felt like we were able to surround ourselves with really great, expert people. And that makes all the difference.”
People used to snicker at Laura Gentile when she was a kid because she played sports with boys all the time. “People thought I was a little strange because I loved sports so much. And I remember feeling like an outcast at Brownies, because I just couldn’t relate to what they were doing,” she recalled with a laugh.
But life as a jock served her well, eventually leading her to create a series of properties at ESPN expressly for people like herself: women who have a passion for sports.
No one would think of her as an outcast anymore. “It’s funny how a lot of life experiences sometimes add up to the perfect job,” said Gentile, who’s senior vice president of espnW and women’s initiatives.
ATHLETE WITH HONORS
She was a star athlete in high school on Long Island and at Duke University, where she was a two-time field hockey captain and garnered All-America and All-ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) honors.
After receiving an MBA in marketing and organizational behavior at Boston College, she had an early stint at Ogilvy & Mather. She jumped to ESPN in an advertising and marketing role and rose up through the ranks, eventually becoming the network’s vice president and chief of staff.
She then took the espnW ball and ran with it. “I’ve always felt women had to be a part of our future at ESPN in order for us to be relevant and continue to grow,” Gentile said. “Women are a super-powerful audience for us to serve. And it’s ultimately an opportunity for the entire industry, to serve women more equally.”
espnW started out as a blog about six years ago. Since then, it has stretched into a series of assets that include a website, radio, television, film and event brand extensions both in the States and internationally. Brazil was the first country to pick up on the espnW opportunity, and other overseas spinoffs are in the works.
espnW’s Women + Sports Summit, a two-day event that features top athletes, is now in its eighth year. About a year ago, the brand added a one-day spinoff summit in Chicago and a strand of campus conversations about women’s sports in seven to 10 universities.
Last July and August, espnW attracted about 12 million unique visitors per month, partly due to the Olympics. Its sports experts add their perspectives to programs on ESPN, including SportsCenter and Outside the Lines, garnering further awareness for the brand.
Said former U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team member Julie Foudy, now an ESPN analyst and espnW contributor: “Laura really has been a trailblazer in this space for women. She created a model that many people didn’t believe in. I’m sure there were a lot of people internally in the early stages that thought, ‘This is never going to make it.’ I think her greatest accomplishment is showing the value of [the female sports] market.”
“To me, Laura embodies espnW, and that’s what makes her such an effective executive,” John Kosner, ESPN’s executive vice president, digital and print media, added. “She willed it to happen and brings her passion to bear on it every day.”
When the huge issue of domestic violence and the National Football League became a focus of national attention, espnW talent became voices of authority on other channels as well, like CNN and MSNBC.
While all of that was going on, Gentile was helping to forge the Global Sports Mentoring Program with the U.S. State Department, which pairs emerging women leaders from around the world with top U.S. women executives. She also is a key influencer at Sports 4 Life, a grant program developed by espnW and the Women’s Sports Foundation that aims to increase the participation and retention of African-American and Hispanic girls in sports.
While the brand she created chronicles the feats of amazing sportswomen, Gentile has several important males in her life. There’s her husband, Tom Baggott, whom she met while working at Ogilvy & Mather. There’s her dad, who went to every game Gentile played in, became her softball coach and her “No. 1 golf partner.”
There are her two sons, Will and Beau. (She’s pregnant with a third child, on the way in April.) And then there’s her mentor, George Bodenheimer, a former president of both ESPN and ABC Sports.
“George demystified corporate leadership for me. He was a very relatable guy. He used his better judgment and sought out information and then he was decisive,” Gentile said.
Another mentor is Christine Driessen, executive vice president and CFO at ESPN. “She’s a mentor to many rising women at ESPN,” Gentile said. She noted the significant role Driessen has played during her 20-plus years at ESPN, making sure major decisions were truly right for the company. “She’s a truthsayer. She’s the backbone of what’s right and true at lot of times.”
FINDING FANS YEAR-ROUND
Gentile’s role in finding what’s “right and true” for espnW is far from done. One challenge involves a certain brainteaser: “Outside of the big events, like the U.S. Open and the Women’s World Cup, how do you draw people to the website?” Foudy said. “How do you get them interested in a women’s softball league or the women’s ice hockey team at the Olympics? There’s so much great content out there that’s not in the mainstream.”
Kosner notes another “to do” item: “Our goal is not just to create a great ESPN property for women, but rather to bring more women to ESPN. That’s relatively new behavior, so it’s a challenge.”
“We’ve built a strong foundation,” Gentile said, “but to really change the industry, and for the industry to truly be inclusive of women — as fans, as commentators, as journalists, as athletes — there’s still a long way to go.”