Christine Driessen, ESPN’s chief number-cruncher, head of financial responsibility, retires after 33 years
Christine Driessen, who retired as ESPN’s chief financial officer last month, seems fated to have had a career running numbers for a sports television network.
After all, her family has played a part in the history of sports television. Driessen’s uncle, Hector G. Dowd, was the winning pitcher during the first sporting event ever televised in the U.S. — a 1939 baseball game between Columbia and Princeton. Dowd pitched all 10 innings of the Lions’ 2-1 loss.
Driessen’s family also is steeped in the financial world. Her grandfather, Hector J. Dowd, was the top policeman for the Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1930s.
The most important and successful financial executive in ESPN’s history, Driessen has been a passionate sports fan since childhood. Her mastery and integrity with numbers came from her grandfather, someone to whom she grew especially close after her father died when she was just 11 years old.
“It’s funny how life kind of goes all the way back to the beginning,” Driessen said. “Some of the principles you learn, you don’t realize you’re learning at the time. Those are two stories that I’ve never really shared with anyone. But as I think back on my career and how I got there, and what I accomplished, it’s pretty cool.”
Driessen, 63, officially retired from ESPN last month following a decorated career where she oversaw the finances for the biggest company in sports media. Known for being a steady presence during sometimes rancorous negotiations, Driessen also helped create imaginative deals, such as ESPN’s 20-year agreement with the Southeastern Conference that runs to 2034.
Driessen oversaw a wild period of growth for the sports network. When she started in 1985, ESPN had just lost $5 million for the year. A few years later, ESPN had signed an NFL deal and started charging cable operators 20 percent rate increases annually, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. During Driessen’s run as CFO, ESPN averaged double-digit revenue and profit growth.
During her 33 years at the company, Driessen was part of every big negotiation involving ESPN. By her own account, Driessen generally was not the one in the room doing the negotiating. Usually, she would set up in an adjacent room, running risk analyses and telling the company’s negotiators where they had financial flexibility and where they didn’t.
Driessen, who was named CFO in 1994, has been a ubiquitous presence in Bristol, available at all hours to discuss strategy and finances. Just about every vacation was interrupted at one point or another with calls from the office.
“I always took my vacation, but I never was on a real vacation,” Driessen said. “It was something I accepted and my kids learned to live with.”
When asked to describe the most memorable deal on which she worked, Driessen brought up the 2005 NFL negotiations, when Disney moved “Monday Night Football” from ABC to ESPN — a deal that interrupted a vacation she was taking in the Adirondacks. Driessen found out that she had to fly to Disney’s headquarters in Burbank, Calif., for an important series of meetings with the league. ESPN’s president at the time, George Bodenheimer, flew to Albany, N.Y., on a corporate jet, picked up Driessen and then flew to Burbank.
“We landed and met with [Walt Disney Co.’s Chairman and CEO] Bob Iger and [Disney CFO] Tom Staggs and got our negotiating stance down,” she said. “We walked into the room, and there’s the whole NFL team: Pat Bowlen, Roger Goodell, Steve Bornstein and Eric Grubman. It was a slug fest, it really was …
“It really was an incredible learning experience, with iconic people in our business. And, of course, I was the only woman in the room.”
That image of Driessen as the only woman in the room is one that she got to know all too well during her time at ESPN. During her first executive committee meeting at ESPN, one of the other committee members asked Driessen to get him a cup of coffee and a pad of paper.
“My mom always told me hold back and act professional, and those words resonated with me that moment,” she said. “I went out and asked the executive assistant to come in and help out. He really had no idea what was going on, and then I was elected to the board that day.”
Driessen would not identify the executive but said that he eventually became one of her strongest proponents.
Driessen relishes her role as a mentor, even if she did not always see herself as a role model.
“In the moment, I didn’t realize how iconic a role I had,” Driessen said. “I feel I had a huge role in [pushing ESPN to diversify its employee ranks]. I feel like it’s one of my greatest legacies at ESPN. I was prepared to sit in a room full of all men and say, ‘we don’t have enough women at this table.’”