When Disney President/CEO Bob Iger delivered a bullish forecast for ESPN several months back, calling for double-digit growth through 2009, he placed much of the responsibility for achieving it on the youthful shoulders of Tanya VanCourt.
As VP/general manager of ESPN's Broadband and Interactive Television, VanCourt oversees distribution of all of the network's video products on new-media platforms—an area with potential for “enormous” growth and new revenue streams, Iger said. And as consumers—or “fans,” as ESPN assiduously calls them—clamor for video content on a whenever-wherever basis, she will chart the network's course for delivering it to them.
“That really is a central focus of everything we do,” VanCourt says. “Two years ago, the tornado was kind of off in the horizon, but you knew it was coming. Now it's squarely upon us, and it's mixing everything up. It's kind of fun.”
At 33, VanCourt is a rising star at ESPN. Her vast portfolio calls for her to make decisions as crucial and diverse as which ESPN shows should be offered on iTunes, how to maximize ad revenue from video plays on ESPN.com, the best incarnations for ESPN programming on interactive television (ITV), and how to bolster search and peer-to-peer exchange capabilities for broadband video. She's also masterminding the network's soon-to-launch forays into ITV and video-on-demand.
Next month, as all pockets of the globe turn their attention to soccer's World Cup, VanCourt will be at the helm of one of ESPN's most ambitious new-media programming initiatives ever: carrying 52 matches live from Germany on broadband outlet ESPN360.
VanCourt's job involves content management, financial oversight, affiliate diplomacy, technological development and mapping a strategy for the future all at once.
ESPN Executive VP of Content John Skipper praises her ability to balance it all. “What's so distinctive about Tanya,” he says, “is her ability to blend remarkable business and technological acumen with an intuitive understanding of both content and people. At a time when delivering on the enormous promise of new media is of ever increasing importance, it is reassuring to have somebody with that combination of abilities in a key role at ESPN.”
The youngest of six children, VanCourt was raised by her aunt in Northern California after her mother died when VanCourt was only 5. She wasn't much of a sports fan growing up but has become a devoted fan of diminutive Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, appreciating his tenacity and determination despite his small stature.
“He has a lot of heart,” she says.
With undergraduate and master's degrees in industrial engineering from Stanford, VanCourt has been at the vanguard of new communications technology. In the 1990s, she worked for Covad Communications as it pioneered the rollout of DSL service. She later helped launch both digital cable and Internet-based telephony services at Cablevision. Now VanCourt is already looking to the next big thing.
“Bringing together community and content is going to be the next place you'll see media companies going,” she says.
VanCourt's colleagues, past and present, admire her leadership abilities and describe her as engaging, effervescent and refreshingly modest. “She has personal magnetism and humility—important ingredients that followers cherish,” says Bob Knowling, her boss at Covad, whom VanCourt cites as a mentor.
“This company is full of great personalities and great leaders, and she somehow stands out as one of the best,” says ESPN Director of New Media Content John Lasker, who reports to VanCourt. “She's something else.”