When Sean Bratches, executive VP for sales and marketing at ESPN, was at White Plains (N.Y.) High School he played hockey. One of his teammates, David Levy, grew up to be president of Turner Broadcasting and is also in the B&C Hall of Fame.
Bratches was the first to call when Levy was named head of ad sales and sports for Turner. “He came over with a picture of the 1979 regional state championship team,” Levy recalls. “I didn’t know that picture existed.”
Levy remembers Bratches as a leader and a competitor, and those characteristics have carried over to his business career. “Sean likes to win, but he doesn’t do that at the expense of the people around him.”
Bratches had an early interest in ad sales. A family friend worked in sales for CBS, so when he got out of school he got a job selling ad time for the Storer station group. In three years he was running the Dallas office of the company’s rep firm. When the stations were sold, the rep firm was closed, and Bratches moved back to New York. Being a fan of ESPN, he decided to try to get a job at the sports network.
He scored an interview but all the ad sales jobs were filled, so Bratches was pointed to affiliate sales, where George Bodenheimer had just been promoted to VP. “Sean called me repeatedly. I joked I had to hire him so he’d stop calling,” recalls Bodenheimer who in time became president of ESPN. “All kidding aside, I quickly realized that Sean would be a great hire, and that’s an understatement. We had a run working together that lasted 30-plus years. And he really embodies everything about ESPN, our values, our culture, and he has done a fantastic job,” Bodenheimer says. “Really, Sean Bratches has helped shape the entire industry. He’s contributed an awful lot.”
ESPN president John Skipper, Bratches’ current boss, says “Sean’s engaged in every significant decision the company makes, whether it’s to start a new network, what kind of marketing campaigns we’re going to have, or how we’re going to manage the relaunch of SportsCenter.”
Bratches may not have been at ESPN when it launched, but he’s been directly involved in the launch of all the company’s networks since then, including most recently the marketing, advertising and distribution of the SEC Network. “At this point, I bleed ESPN. It’s in my DNA,” he says.
Skipper adds that Bratches may be “the most relentlessly upbeat person I know. He breeds a culture of optimism, pride and hard work.”
Bratches played lacrosse at Rochester Institute of Technology and is also in the college’s Hall of Fame. “Sean is a lacrosse maniac,” says Skipper, noting that Bratches has hired ex-lacrosse players and pushes to get the sport airtime. Bratches also keeps a stick in his office. “I just need to make sure he doesn’t use it on me,” Skipper says.
Skipper adds that Bratches is shepherding ESPN through a busy year in affiliate relations, including a breakthrough deal putting ESPN on Dish Network’s new over-the-top TV platform.
Getting tough deals done is hardly new for Bratches . Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus says one of his initial assignments at the MSO was renewing the Walt Disney Co. carriage agreement, which made Bratches one of the first guys in the cable business he met.
“The guy impressed me right from the start as being very smart, but even more than smart, he always kept his eye on the ball and was very practical about getting to the finish line,” Marcus says.
Thanks in large part to Bratches, Disney—with ESPN—is the most expensive programmer cable operators deal with, which makes negotiations challenging. But with Bratches, “you still feel like you have a solid relationship with him. That’s a rare commodity in our business as things get more contentious and negotiations get uglier and more public,” Marcus says.
At cable shows, everyone seems to know Bratches and “you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who has a bad thing to say about him,” Marcus says. “And it doesn’t mean he’s not hard-driving and tough. He really goes above and beyond to cultivate relationships over long periods of time.”
With cable operators and with advertisers, Bratches has been active in using technology to improve the ESPN product and put it in front of more customers.
“There’s been a lot of architects of ESPN over the years but I think when you look back at Sean, his legacy is going to be their movement into the multiplatform distribution space,” says Tom McGovern , managing director of Optimum Sports. “A lot of the deals that he was directly involved with, the cable operators created the whole infrastructure of what we know as ESPN today, which is really the most integrated media brand across all platforms.”
Advertisers want ESPN’s audience, and Bratches sells it in the old-school way with integrity. “He’s an honorable, trustworthy businessman,” says McGovern.
Coca-Cola has done a lot of business with ESPN, and is a sponsor of College Game Day. “That came together quickly and evolved to be one of our most important partnerships,” recalls Katie Bayne, senior VP, Global Sparkling Brands. “Sean is that unique combination of experience, passion and being open to new ideas and big thinking.”
Bratches says he prides himself on the relationships he’s built in the business. But he also notes that as an ESPN executive, “it was good to be my sons. They’ve been to Super Bowls, Wimbledon, X Games, World Series.” Taking after their dad, they grew up to be good athletes as well. “Three of my four sons competed at the NCAA level, which is quite nice,” he says.