Savvy Storyteller

ESPN’s Alison Overholt makes sure content drives revenue across the organization
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NAME: Alison Overholt
TITLE: VP, Editor in Chief, ESPN The Magazine, espnW and The ESPYs
COMPANY: ESPN
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Gathering more than 140 U.S. gymnasts and “sister survivors” on stage at last summer’s ESPY Awards to give them the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
QUOTABLE: “I have a business mind but a storyteller’s heart.”

For Alison Overholt, vice president and editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, espnW and The ESPYs, no matter what she’s doing, it always comes back to the storytelling.

Alison Overholt

Alison Overholt

Her job at ESPN is to oversee content creation while creating partnerships to make sure content is working hard across all possible platforms. In the past five years, she’s risen quickly, gathering more teams and products under her purview.

In 2014, Laura Gentile, ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing, recruited Overholt back after a four-year hiatus to lead espnW, a platform she originally launched with Gentile in 2009.

In 2016, she was named editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, where she got her start at ESPN in 2005. In 2017, she added oversight of all of ESPN.com’s longform content, and in 2018, she became ESPN’s lead executive on the ESPYs, which last summer put more than 140 “sister survivors” on stage and honored them with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Strategic Thinking

“Alison has helped expand the power, purview and reach of The Magazine by forging timely strategic partnerships across the ESPN enterprise,” said Rob King, senior VP, original content.

Added ESPN executive VP of content Connor Schell, “Alison is an incredibly creative content executive who looks holistically at the types of content her teams produce and tells stories that have varying tones and textures.”

Overholt has been a journalist since attending high school in Hong Kong and editing the school paper. Later, she wrote for both the Harvard Crimson and the Harvard International Review while studying government at Harvard University. She was recruited out of school into consulting. While working at KPMG, she often read business magazine Fast Company and fantasized about working for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs the magazine profiled.

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“I was working in a field where I was learning a ton … but it wasn’t feeding my soul and I wasn’t happy,” she said. “Finally, a light bulb went off. It’s the telling of these stories that gets me going, it’s pulling the curtain back on new ideas.”

She pursued a job at the magazine and, due to much persistence, landed her dream job as a correspondent in the magazine’s Silicon Valley bureau in 2000. The dream was short-lived, though, because the Valley was about to enter a major slump.

“The dot-com bubble burst and the stock market crashed,” she said. “Everything was about to go down the toilet. My entire time working at Fast Company was living through rounds of layoffs and trying to avoid shutting down.”

To keep herself afloat, she started freelancing and focusing on women in sports, a topic near to her heart as a high school basketball player and, later, a long-distance runner. That connected her with Sports Illustrated for Women and eventually brought her to Gary Belsky and Gary Hoenig, who at the time were co-editors in chief of ESPN The Magazine. They brought Overholt in to cover a new beat that resided at the intersection of sports and business.

Instead of being upset that she wasn’t actually doing what she had been hired to do, Overholt started tackling what was in front of her. “For a long while, I was editing stories in the front of the magazine,” she said. “After about a year, I started editing action sports and Olympics coverage,” and that included a twice-yearly mini-magazine dedicated to the X Games and extreme sports.

At one point, the magazine ran an investigative piece on steroids in baseball and that turned on another light for Overholt. “It became clear that there was an opportunity to do enterprise journalism,” she said. “Up to that point, ESPN The Magazine had been about profiles and pop culture-meets-sports kinds of stuff. This was a new thing for the magazine.”

Overholt and another editor, Chad Millman, pitched the idea to their higher-ups and got the go-ahead. The pair led an investigative team that was successful enough that Millman was later named editor in chief of the magazine, a position at which Overholt would later succeed him. In late 2008, Belsky introduced Overholt to Gentile, who was exploring creating a separate business aimed at women. Overholt worked with Gentile on a task force, which led to the launch of espnW, the global multiplatform brand dedicated to engaging and inspiring women through sports.

While espnW still exists today, those early years were rocky. In 2010, Overholt elected to leave ESPN and start her own digital media consultancy.

In the end, however, Gentile, recruited her back.

Returning to the Fold

“When I left ESPN, it was so agonizing,” Overholt said. “Growing up in that editorial world was the only thing I ever knew. But I knew the world was changing and I didn’t want to be a magazine person for the rest of my life. I have a business mind but a storyteller’s heart. Still, the best thing that ever happened to me was me feeling like I needed to leave and do other things.”

While juggling all of that is challenging, Overholt’s soul is finally fed.

“The exact thing that creates that disruption and can make things more nerve-wracking and stressful, the flip side of that is excitement,” she said. “That’s the moment a great idea can break through. That’s the moment that someone will think of something that’s never been thought of before.”

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