Marie Donoghue went to law school at
Columbia University even though she
didn’t plan to practice law. “I thought of it as
continuing my liberal arts education—I wanted
to learn how to think differently,” she says.
This year, ESPN promoted Donoghue, one
of two women on its executive committee, to
senior VP, global strategy, business development
and business affairs. But her path was roundabout,
and it did begin with the law.
After graduating she decided to gain experience
and took a job at a Wall Street firm. That
led to work at Polygram Holdings in the early
Internet days, dealing with Napster, before she
came to ESPN in 1998 as senior counsel for
ESPN Internet Group. “I didn’t love law for the
sake of the law—I loved the negotiations and the
partnerships,” she says.
She left law behind in 2000 when she became
VP, business affairs for ESPN Enterprises. “As a
lawyer, you advise others on the risks,” she says,
“but now I had to help actually make the decision
about taking the risks. It was a little scary.”
Donoghue quickly found a comfort zone and
never looked back. The broad-based nature of
her job ranges from operational decisions to
deal negotiations, from social media strategy for
ESPN’s content division to business plans for
Grantland.com, operations for ESPN’s gaming
business and ESPN Films. Being flexible in her
thinking has paid off big.
Her Web experience proved key. “I love digital
because everything is always changing—you
have to be comfortable with shifting sands and
you have to stay educated and current,” she says.
One crucial bit of flexibility came when ESPN
decided to take “a fairly unique approach” by
negotiating for rights in “any and all media,”
Donoghue says, meaning that as technology has
changed and more options have arisen, the company
has not had to go back to renegotiate deals.
One thing she never worried about was being
a woman at a sports network. “I’ve been outnumbered
since being in the first class of women
at Columbia College,” she says, adding that Wall
Street and the digital worlds were equally maledominated.
“If I’m the only woman in the room,
then people will remember who I am.”
When she moved over from the digital to the
television side at ESPN, that may have broken a
bigger barrier in terms of mind-sets. And when
she was named to ESPN’s executive committee,
“I had a lot of women reach out to tell me how
much it meant to them, but a lot of people from
the digital side too,” she says.