As executive vice president and managing director for ESPN International, Russell Wolff has one of the broadest remits in sport. The ESPN International business he has overseen since 2002 has grown to include full or part ownership of no fewer than 26 television networks outside of the United States, as well as additional interests spanning television, radio, print, digital, consumer products and event management in over 60 countries and territories across the globe.
When it comes to broadcasting sport internationally, there is little ESPN doesn’t cover. Its rights portfolio reads like a who’s who of the planet’s preeminent sports properties, and today The Walt Disney Company-owned pay-TV pioneer remains intent on retaining its self-proclaimed title of ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports’.
Over the past 12 months, ESPN International has sought to refocus its business in key markets after a recent period of restructuring. In January, a new partnership with Sony’s Multi Screen Media (MSM) in India marked ESPN’s return to the cricket-mad sub-continent after it ended its 18-year-old joint venture with the News Corp-owned Star network in 2013, while a far-reaching content and production collaboration with China’s Tencent in February has put the ESPN brand at the heart of one of the most aggressive and uniquely competitive digital marketplaces anywhere in the world.
In Spanish-speaking Latin America and Brazil, meanwhile, ESPN’s regional networks are coming off the back of a busy summer having tackled the broadcaster’s biggest Olympic production ever at Rio 2016. And in other countries and regions such as the UK, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, it is digital that has emerged as the primary driver and chief consumer touch-point for ESPN’s now-established local presence.
All this has meant that, for Wolff himself, 2016 has been a “wildly active” year. Though based at ESPN International’s New York City headquarters, he says he spends over half of his time outside of the US, orchestrating a multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar operation that spans production facilities and offices from Buenos Aires to Bangalore. In a wide-ranging interview at the end of September, Wolff took time out from his packed schedule to give SportsPro a market-by-market overview of where the ESPN International business stands today and to share his thoughts on what the future holds for the increasingly fragmented world of sports broadcasting.
Wolff on… the strength of the ESPN brand in 2016
“I think you’ll find the brand is synonymous with sports and is a global brand. When you think about our tagline of ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports’, nobody has more businesses in more places under one single brand in the sport business than we do. We feel like the brand is really strong, and that doesn’t mean that this business is the same in each place because the businesses have evolved on different timetables and in different models in different places. But we feel like the connection that the ESPN brand has with fans today has never been stronger.”
Wolff on… the growth of ESPN’s digital business
“I would say 2016 has been a wildly active and very exciting year for us around the world. We’ve got thriving multimedia business in places like Latin America, Canada, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, but we’re also continuing the growth of ESPN’s local digital sports business.
“When you look at the traffic and uniques and video stats and all that, ESPN is number one globally, in the US and outside the US together. It’s the biggest single digital sports business, and only accelerating.”
Wolff on… that old industry adage of ‘thinking global, acting local’
“We actually think about it slightly differently than ‘thinking global, acting local’. We think about it as building globally, programming locally. Take ESPN.com. That platform is a global platform, one that we can use anywhere in the world, but the content that a fan sees in India, versus a fan in China versus a fan in Mexico or Peru or Europe, is different.
“ESPN.co.uk and the ESPN.com version in Mexico are built on the exact same platform that we’ve built to be flexible and useful globally. Obviously it’s in a different language for starters, but the content that we’re choosing, not just the language but the angles we’re taking, the mix of content, are programmed locally. So from a digital perspective, we use ‘build globally, programme locally’ as our strategic direction.”
Wolff on… the autonomy of ESPN’s regional networks
“When you think about the television businesses for a minute, we have 26 networks outside of the United States. We have a real mix of content that we acquire centrally in total coordination with things that we’re acquiring for regions around the world, and sometimes in sync with our US content acquisition. Other times, we’re buying content just for Australia or just for Argentina or just for South America, and that might be bought locally.
“We don’t think about it as autonomous as much as we want to buy content from the place where it’s most efficient to buy it, with the people who have the best relationships with the content sellers. We’ve got a central programming team but we also have localised programming teams and they’re all part of one big programming team, so they’re constantly talking about which content to buy, how to programme it, how to maximise its value to us, and how to maximise its appeal and engagement with fans.”
Wolff on… balancing local relevance with ‘cheerleading’ for US sport
“You know, it’s not our mission to grow other people’s leagues: it’s our mission to serve sports fans anytime, anywhere. When those two things align, it’s very powerful. When you find that the appeal of the NFL [National Football League] is growing in Brazil or the NFL is taking a regular season game to Mexico City or London, or Major League Baseball is taking baseball games to Australia, or NBA has games in China, that’s a great fit for us.
“We don’t think of ourselves as cheerleaders but we do find that often the objectives of the leagues and our objectives fit well with each other, which allows us to leverage our strong heritage in US sport with our capabilities locally. There is nothing more powerful than telling stories to fans in a tone and style and voice that’s local about something that’s exciting and interesting to them.”
Wolff on… the ESPN approach to due diligence
“When I think about what my personal job is, which is to grow the ESPN brand around the world profitably, we look first and foremost at those places where it’s good to be in business. Can we do good business there? And that’s a combination of: what is the media landscape in that marketplace, what’s the regulatory environment in that marketplace, what do we bring to bear that’s different, better, unique, new, and what does the competitive landscape look like? How will we do when we go there?
“We’ve been in business one way or another in almost every country in the world over the last 20 years that I’ve been at the company, and I think we have a good lens that we look through in terms of trying to decide, you know, should we do this ourselves, should be do this with a partner, should be do this in digital, should we do this in television and digital at the same time? I think we have a nice mix of those business models around the world.”
Wolff on… partnering with Tencent in China
“The Chinese marketplace is different; the role of streaming and OTT is different and has a bigger place there than in many other markets. Tencent is the NBA’s largest single rights partner in China but also in the world; they have more NBA rights than anybody else in the world. So when we were thinking about entering China – or re-entering China, really, because we’ve been there as part of our ESPN Star Sports partnership – we were very interested, as was Tencent, in partnering together in part because we’re both partners with the NBA.
“We’re partners with the NBA here [in the US] and in many other countries around the world, but also we own an equity stake in NBA China so it was a natural fit for us to partner with the NBA’s partner in the marketplace.
“We’re excited about what we’ve done so far when you look at what we’ve achieved in a few short months on the back of a multi-year agreement with one of the world’s largest and most innovative digital companies and one of the most respected companies in China. We’ve got off to a great start, between March Madness and the NBA Playoffs and Finals, with someone I would consider a great partner and a pretty incredible company that is part of the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese sports fans daily.”
“It’s a complicated deal because it’s got multiple components – it’s got digital components, it’s got production components, it’s got live rights components. But we have an excellent team that works on Asia. We have a lot of support from Disney’s offices in China. The Walt Disney Company has a great relationship with Tencent, and so we feel like it went very smoothly.”
Wolff on… collaborating with Sony India
“ESPN has a long history in India; we were the first encrypted pay-TV channel in India, I believe, in 1994/95. But when we sold our stake in ESPN Star Sports back to News Corp, we exited that marketplace from a television perspective. When we were allowed to, we went back into the marketplace and we thought about who we could partner with, and who would be an excellent partner, and we felt really good about partnering with Sony.
“That partnership has three components. One is, we branded some of their sports channels as Sony ESPN channels, where the channels are branded Sony ESPN and some of the content is coming from us. We’ve created ESPNcricinfo-branded original programmes around the IPL [Indian Premier League] and other cricket properties, and we’ve licensed thousands of hours of content to Sony: live sports, studio coverage, films. We’re excited about the opportunities ahead to create more new programming, particularly cricket and locally branded programming.
“On the digital side, we launched a multi-sport version of ESPN.com. For India, we already had Cricinfo, which is the biggest cricket website in India, and the launch of ESPN.in, which is really very local: Indian voice, Indian sensibility. That partnership is over a year old and I think both parties feel like we’ve done very well together. It’s exciting. Our digital products are far better and far more penetrative and far more popular today than they’ve ever been amongst Indian sports fans.”
Wolff on… broadcasting Rio 2016 across Latin America
“Rio 2016 was the single biggest Olympic production ever for us. We had literally teams from all over the world, and had been preparing for that for almost two years. I remember going to Rio for the [2014 Fifa] World Cup and going to an Olympic planning meeting while I was there – that’s how far in advance we’re thinking about these big events. We’ve been honing our approach to these big events so we think about them as the global sports company.
“Literally, we’re talking about, ‘OK, which territories do we have the rights for the Olympics? We have the rights throughout Latin America, including Brazil, and the Caribbean. What do we need for that operation? Where do we want to have television news coverage? What do we need for that operation? And everywhere else, we’re going to have digital coverage – what do we need for that operation?’ And then treat that all like one team, one operation, one project, so that it’s fully coordinated.
“Where we can share content, we are. Where we can share resources, we are. And it leads to our biggest ever Olympic production, which I was really proud of this summer, including record Olympic ratings in Brazil and in Mexico and in Argentina.”
Wolff on… the UK business
“We feel really good about the partnership we’ve crafted with BT. We’d obviously had our own channels prior to that and made the decision that we needed a different business model. The partnership that we created with BT is already years old, and again it’s not dissimilar to some of the others I’ve described; it’s co-branded TV channels as part of the BT Sport bundle.
“We license thousands of hours of content for those networks, and that partnership with them sits alongside our wholly owned, growing local digital business, including ESPN.co.uk and the local edition of the ESPN app. We’re excited about the growth we’ve seen in that marketplace and we really value the partnership we have with BT. I think it’s worked well for both of us.”
Wolff on… operating in Australia
“I’m particularly excited by Australia. We have a strong position in sports there; we’ve been there since the beginning of pay-TV in 1997. We have three ESPN-branded networks that sit alongside a suite of digital products that are the number one set of digital products in the Australian marketplace. We are carried on, amongst other platforms, Foxtel and the sports package with Fox Sports, and we feel like it’s a great sports market. We know fans love the ESPN digital brands; they interact with us, whether it’s on Cricinfo or ESPNfootytips, which is a tipping site, or scrum.com or ESPN.com.au.
“Australia, Caribbean, Latin America: these are markets we think of as multimedia markets – television, maybe radio, digital, maybe magazine. We’re in multiple outlets, multiple media approaches, and that surround approach lets you connect with fans even more easily.”
Wolff on… his broad remit
“I spend about 55 and 60 per cent of my time outside of the US. My days are long. It’s not uncommon to have a 6am conference call; it’s also not uncommon to have a midnight conference call.
“You know, my approach to the job is you have to hire great people locally. The key to ESPN’s success outside of the US, in large part, has been not about what’s going on with me at the centre, but what’s been going on with the ongoing development and success of local leadership in our UK headquarters for EMEA, in our offices in Asia, where we run Asia-Pacific out of, our team in Australia, as well as teams in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. I feel really good about the leadership team that we have in place around the world.”
Wolff on… his ESPN career highlights
“I got to work on the ’99 Cricket World Cup as the host broadcaster for India. To be the host broadcaster for the Cricket World Cup in India was a big deal, particularly as it was the first Cricket World Cup I’d ever worked on. Certainly, this string of new partnerships we’ve developed – BT, Sony and Tencent – have been real exciting deals, and when I was in Rio working on the Olympics, it was pretty exciting and also my 13th Olympic Games.
“But one of the things that touches my heart more than anything else has been working with Special Olympics International. It’s just an amazing event with amazing athletes and families and coaches and supporters. I don’t think the world gives it enough attention.”
Wolff on… the shifting global media landscape
“I think two of our sayings that we use often at ESPN are, in some ways, timeless. One is: ‘serve sports fans anytime, anywhere’. The digital transition has been all about that. You went from you could only watch sport at home, to you could watch it not just in your living room but on your computer, and then not just in your living room and on your computer but on your cellphone and then your tablet. The anytime, anywhere component of it, I think, is both retrospectively true and it will continue to be evolutionary as we go forward.
“The other one is we have this theory about best available screen. Fans want to watch sports content on the best available screen. If they could watch it in a theatre with an enormous screen, they would. They love watching it on their 72-inch HD TV in their living room, but if they can’t get to that, they’ll watch it on their 27-inch computer at the office, and if they can’t get to that, they’ll watch it on their tablet or their smartphone.
“I think we should expect more of the ‘anytime, anywhere’ and ‘best available screen’ philosophies to continue to drive the ongoing growth of interest of fans in watching the best live sports. Live is more important now than it’s ever been and we’re more live than anyone.”