ESPN executive’s talk is a highlight for students
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
No cable television network has had a more direct and lasting impact on American culture than ESPN. For just about anyone who’s a sports fan, its da-da-da, da-da-da musical sound bite is as much a part of daily life as breathing.
But that’s only part of the reason why getting nearly an hour and a half with a top ESPN executive – a guy who’s really in the know – was ratings gold for students in the Colangelo School of Sports Business at Grand Canyon University.
Edward Erhardt, ESPN’s President for Global Sales and Marketing, made sure his visit to campus Thursday afternoon offered as much sports information as any SportsCenter.
He brought videos, including one that showed the 20 best entries in the “This is SportsCenter” advertising campaign – the long-running spoofs of the network’s signature news-and-highlights show. He brought facts and figures, casually recited off the top of his head. He brought passion for what he does.
But besides all that, he was honest. He was engaging. He was fun. You can bet that about 99 percent of the students in the packed classroom would love to work for ESPN, and Erhardt left them with the feeling that it’s an option they should explore. Dr. Brian Smith, director of the Sports Business school and Assistant Dean of the Colangelo College of Business, and Dr. Rick Roth, one of its instructors, both agreed that it was as relevant a talk as the students have ever heard.
Erhardt has been on campus recently because he has taken an interest in GCU and has had several meetings with University administrators.
“I was taken aback by the uniqueness of this place and find that it’s very different from other colleges,” he said.
100 million visitors a month
Likewise, ESPN was considered unique when it was born in 1979, a time when most Americans didn’t have cable television. Now, Erhardt said, its various platforms attract 100 million visitors a month in the U.S. and 200 million across the world, and it has more than 10,000 employees.
To become one of those 10,000, students will need to have a lot more than just a passion for sports. Two hundred million people have that, Erhardt told them. You have to differentiate yourself to be ESPN material.
“One of the things people ask is, ‘How do I get in?’” he said. “The answer I always give is, you shouldn’t worry too much about the first job. Just get in. After six months, you’ll have learned so much about the company.
“Be prepared to travel. If you’re willing to travel in the sports business, usually your career advances. … A master’s degree makes a big difference. But if you’ve just got good common sense and are willing to go to work, roll up your sleeves, it’s amazing what can happen.”
Erhardt said the network is looking for great “business athletes” with a variety of skills, everything from talking in front of a group to listening, writing great emails, understanding technology, being inquisitive and “having the guts to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Many ESPN employees are former athletes, which creates a sense of team, he said: “We look for people who look us in the eye and say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Passion’s great. I love passion. It makes me feel good.”
One of Erhardt’s passions is sales, borne of a career spent in what he called “industries of persuasion.” Asked what characteristics got him where he is, he listed these: inquisitive, tenacious, kind and positive. He needed one more. “Determined,” piped up his wife, Laurie, who was sitting in the front row.
Of those, Erhardt places a lot of value on being kind.
“I believe strongly in being good,” he said. “You can get to big jobs by being a jerk, but that karma can come back to bite you.”
He also urged his listeners to be students of the industry – subscribe to trade magazines, watch trends and be in touch with the medium they’re trying to crack.
Looking for new ideas
During a lengthy question-and-answer session in which the questions were as rapid as Erhardt’s to-the-point answers, he talked openly about recent issues that have put ESPN in the news and, most interestingly, about the effect of social media on the network.
Erhardt told the students that nearly three-quarters of the network’s 100 million monthly visitors don’t watch television, and he candidly admitted that he and other executives are still trying to wrap their arms around how to harness social media.
“We’re trying to attract young people who can bring sustainability and content,” he said. “You’re that generation. You have to have an attitude that’s different. Everybody’s got the score. Everybody’s got the highlight, probably. You’ve got to make it different. What’s your take?”
His take on the future was equally interesting. He envisions a time when watching sports will be divided into two experiences, shared and separate, and fans in the stands at a sports event can share digital content that essentially turns them into front-line reporters. After all, they’re right there.
“I think we’re moving toward a society where we have the greatest athletes in the world and they’ll either be real or artificially created,” he said.
It’s a vast new world that many Sports Business students would like to explore. Maybe they could even come up with some new gags for “This is SportsCenter,” which has involved 425 different athletes in its nearly 25 years.
“That really was an example of the power of great advertising,” Erhardt said.
Enticing stuff for students and sports fans alike. Ratings gold. For at least some of Erhardt’s audience Thursday, it could be the start of a career that’s the da-da-da, da-da-da definition of fun.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].