In the early 1990s, Sean Bratches got a lesson on branding and marketing that has guided him ever since.
“We were launching a second sports network and to differentiate it we decided to call it Sport TV,” Bratches said. “I spent two weeks on the road to hit all the top affiliates; and when I got back, I had a lot of good news. But one of the things our affiliates shouted at me was that we would have to put ESPN in the name. ESPN already had such resonance with the consumer that calling the network Sport TV was going to be a fatal mistake.
“That was when I really realized what we had in terms of the ESPN brand,” he said. “Since then we’ve never developed another asset that didn’t have ESPN in the brand, whether it was ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, ESPN.com, ESPN Mobile or ESPN360.”
Bratches’ role in helping the ESPN brand spread across multiple networks and into a variety of different media helped garner him not one but two Vanguard Awards: 2001’s award for Youth Leadership and now this year’s for Marketing.
“ESPN is a marketing machine,” Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing president and CEO Char Beales said. “We inducted [ESPN’s] 'This is Sports Center’ campaign into the CTAM Hall of Fame years ago, but it is just one example of the power of ESPN’s strategic approach, creativity and cross marketing to serve the sports fan in every way.”
Those marketing efforts also extend far beyond ESPN, where Bratches oversees the affiliates sales, advertising, marketing and research efforts that have been so important to the company’s success. “Sean’s strong presence in cable’s marketing scene has led to unsurpassed service to our industry for nearly two decades,” said George Bodenheimer, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of ESPN and ABC Sports. “He has participated on multiple boards, now serving as chair of CTAM.”
Bratches first became interested in the television industry through a cousin’s husband who sold advertising at CBS. “He had a beautiful house, drove a BMW and belonged to the Westchester [N.Y.] country club; and I told myself, this is something I could do,” Bratches recalled with a laugh.
After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1984, with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Bratches took a job in Dallas with Storer Television selling ad time. When the station group was sold, he landed a job in October 1988 selling ads for ESPN.
Within a year, Bratches was promoted to a senior account executive. But at the time, cable ad sales were relatively limited and he soon moved over to the affiliate sales side, where he worked under George Bodenheimer.
Bratches quickly moved up in the ranks, being promoted to vice president of the eastern division in January 1995 and then taking over all affiliate sales and marketing in 1998. He was promoted to executive vice president ESPN affiliate sales and marketing in 2001 and then was named president of Disney and ESPN Networks affiliates sales and marketing in 2004. In October 2005, he assumed his current position.
Those years in affiliate sales saw a flurry of successful new network and product launches, including ESPN2 (1993), ESPNews (1996), ESPN Classic (1997), ESPNHD (2003), ESPN Deportes (2004), ESPNU (2005), ESPN2HD (2005) and ESPNewsHD (2008), as well as a number of digital products, including ESPN360.com.
Over the years, achieving widespread distribution for those channels has played a major role in the company’s success. “You can’t really sell advertising until you have scale and mass,” he said.
But in recent years, his duties have extended far beyond affiliate sales and marketing. Today, Bratches oversees a team that manages all of the sports assets owned by Disney in all media — radio, print, online, television and outdoor advertising — as well as all of ESPN’s affiliates sales, advertising sales, research, marketing and special events.
“Sports fans don’t just consume television or radio or the Internet or magazines or wireless,” he said. “They consume content across all those platforms, so we sell across platform, market across platform and measure consumer behavior across platforms.”
While those cross-platform efforts have been a major component of ESPN’s success in recent years, they also complicate the process of managing the brand. “We have grown from the corner store to an incredibly large department store chain,” Bratches said, when asked to name his biggest branding challenge. “We now have so many more people internally touching the brand. So we’re very careful to ensure that our brand is managed by a multiplicity of people across myriad platforms so it stays strong and relevant to the sports fan.”
As a result, Bratches has worked hard to build a team of managers who understand each other’s businesses. “We want to have a number of diverse entities work together so they don’t sound like individual instruments in the orchestra, but an orchestra,” he said. “The guy who runs our affiliate business understands our ad sales business and the guy who runs our ad sales business understands the granularity of the affiliate business. When you have that kind of communication and understanding, you can really drive your business in very smart ways.”
So far, that philosophy has helped the sports giant weather some dire economic conditions. “We are outperforming the market,” Bratches said, in part because ESPN’s multiple platforms provide it with more ways to reach sports fans and work with advertisers and affiliates.
These digital platforms have also strengthened the television network. “One of the things we’ve learned is that it is not a zero sum game,” Bratches said. “By making the content more available in places where they couldn’t have otherwise seen it, you’re making the brand more relevant to people. By creating things on broadband like fantasy football, you’re engaging more people on the linear platform. If you are not a Tampa Bay fan, you might not watch one of their games; but if you have Ronde Barber on your fantasy football lineup, you’re more likely to watch it.”