ESPN exec discusses trailblazing career

This year marks the 40-year anniversary of Title IX, a federal mandate that bars discrimination on the basis of sex in collegiate and high school athletic programs across the country. The sports industry as a whole, however, has come a long way in the past four decades, according to former ESPN senior vice president Rosa Gatti.

Gatti broke through the gender barrier, becoming one of the first women hired by ESPN. Gatti, who recently retired from the Connecticut-based company after 33 years, spoke Tuesday afternoon at a Davenport College Master’s Tea about the role of women in sports, her career as a female pioneer in the sports media industry and the now-ubiquitous ESPN.

“Girls and women never thought about sports as a career,” Gatti said of her childhood in the 1960s. “It just didn’t cross our minds.”

Gatti said that when she began at ESPN, she faced more than her fair share of adversity as a rare female employee in a male-dominated arena.

Women were often characterized as emotional when trying to make their cases at the company and were at times isolated from their male counterparts, according to Gatti.

“I almost threw in the towel multiple times,” Gatti said. “There were a lot of guys of my generation who were brought up and weren’t accustomed to hearing women in business. It was like their mom talking to them.”

The two keys to her success, Gatti said, were conviction and communication. When meeting with the president of ESPN on one occasion, Gatti disagreed with the direction that the company was going. Still, she made her feelings known, even though she thought that the president might fire her that day.

Gatti also addressed the lack of diversity that still affects ESPN and the sports industry in general, especially in the play-by-play booth. She added that she has ranted to others at ESPN about improving the diversity of the network’s on-air talent for years.

“Her frank discussion of the diversity issues in sports and media were an important reminder that these issues still persist today,” Evan Frondorf ’14 said in a message to the News.

According to Gatti, the love of sports that delivered her to ESPN began early in her life. She recalled watching Eagles games every Sunday afternoon with her father and brothers.

But she never considered sports as a career until she graduated as a member of Villanova’s first coed class, after which she took a job with the school’s athletic department in a secretarial role. After the sports information director there resigned in the middle of football season, she was appointed temporary sports information director and ultimately kept the job on a permanent basis. She became one of the first female sports information directors at any major university — a role that she later filled at Brown. But when ESPN approached her, she found the job appealing enough to lure her away from Brown.

“[The ESPN president] wanted women and people who were diverse on his team,” Gatti said. “And he supported the people he hired against a lot of politics and complaints.”

Working at ESPN, however, was no walk in the park. Gatti said that she worked out of a trailer for a year while the company got on its feet. It was not until 1985 that the network broke even, losing a staggering $100 million up to that point.

Despite the fact that ESPN is so well-known now, the thought of a cable network devoting all of its programming to sports seemed ludicrous at the time.

“None of us dreamt that we would become what we’ve become today,” Gatti said.

Gatti also spoke about ESPN’s culture and brand, citing the network’s decisions to build its on-air talent and showcase its anchors, especially its SportsCenter hosts, as central to the company’s growth.

“We in effect became very much a part of American culture primarily through our commentators,” Gatti said.

The marketing angle ESPN pursued was another reason the network has been able to assert itself so effectively, Gatti added. She said that when ESPN elected to change its marketing agency to the one employed by Nike, the agency sat down with the commentators and employees of ESPN to determine the company’s true ethos. Together, they decided to frame the company as the center of the sports universe, a choice that spawned the influential “This is SportsCenter” ad campaign that has endured for 19 years.

“I thought how much she emphasized women’s roles in society in general was really influential,” Erica Borgo ’14 said. “Talking about how she as a female was able to influence that industry was really motivational.”

Gatti retired in February of this year as senior vice president, communications counsel and corporate outreach at ESPN.

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