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CABLE TV'S GOOD SPORT

Judy Fearing

by Joan Oleck
Athletic events are big business these days, and the challenge for this seasoned marketing executive is to carve out an image for ESPN
Judy Fearing Zierick '76 has a job any red-blooded, sports-crazed American college student would die for: A couple of button pushes on the phone in her glass-encased, executive-corner office at ESPN and she's got front-row seats for the NCAA Final Four playoffs. A whisper to an aide and she's winging her way to the NBA match of her choosing.

Ditto for the Super Bowl.

And the Davis Cup.

And the Stanley Cup. Or the America's Cup. Or whatever hard-driving, gut-wrenching, slam-dunking sport she chooses. As it happens, Fearing is the senior vice president for marketing for America's premier cable sports network. And in that context, she has to entertain advertisers, cable affiliates, and other clients at the biggest, best sporting events. "While it seems to most people like a boon, there are real business reasons for being there," Fearing tells a visitor solemnly. Then, a beat later, she dissolves into laughter. Yeah, sure, uh-huh. Real business reasons. Tough job, but somebody's got to do it?

In sum, Fearing lives the paradox we all dream of: a job that's fun. Now the veteran of fifteen years of marketing and finance-executive positions at Nabisco and Pepsi-Cola--where she coined the "right one, baby (uh-huh)" slogan--Fearing has figuratively traded in her Nine Wests for Nikes. By all accounts a true-blue sports fan who at Duke consistently chose Cameron Indoor Stadium over Perkins Library, she is today doing sports for a living.

Sports is big business these days, and Fearing's challenge is to carve out an image for ESPN, which, for most of its fifteen years, has had no image. This may not be the easiest task, considering that the network's sole reason for being--sports--seem precariously perched at the cusp of business and pleasure, hamstrung by scummy commercialism on the one hand and drug-abusing, woman-abusing superstars on the other.

That's too bad because sports, as The New York Times writes, are the "mirror of our culture." And, increasingly, Americans don't like the reflection: Sports "show us spoiled fools as role models, cities and colleges held hostage, and games that exist only to hawk products," The Times says.

Where once we admired the nobility of DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, and Jesse Owens, today we sigh deeply over the lesser lights of Tonya Harding, Mike Tyson, and Dennis Rodman and his latest hairdo. We're not exactly crazy about Dick Vitale, either.

Wondrously, these troubles don't faze Fearing. And if they do, she covers up well. Her job is after all, marketing, damage control. "Sports is something that really unites individuals and is something people can develop a real bond for," she insists, loyally. "Even if you don't know someone, you may be a Yankees fan or a Duke basketball fan or a Michigan fan. There's some kind of commonality there that can start you into a conversation."

Besides, Tyson and Harding are the "extremes." "One of the key things we need to do as a network," says Fearing--a small, fit woman who chooses an elegant, royal-blue knit suit, but also a short, no-nonsense hairdo and no makeup--"is talk about the real essence of the sport: We don't spend a lot of time making single athletes bigger than the event itself. Nor do we spend a lot of time trying to make personalities on our show larger than the show itself. I think it's real important for us to realize that the quarterback on the football team isn't a hero; he's a sports celebrity. Heroes are our teachers and our parents, not sports celebrities. And I think America is going to put it back in balance."

In short, one understands, Fearing and her marketing minions are going to help America do just that. Besides, she says, America still has athletes it can respect. Such as? She points to the almost wall-length blowup in her office of a 1990 Sports Illustrated cover photo of then-Duke star Grant Hill '94 slapping the ball into the basket to clinch the Final Four title against Kansas. Hill, Bobby Hurley '93, Christian Laettner '92--"I just look at the chemistry on that Duke basketball team as something I was very impressed with," Fearing explains. Hill, now a forward for the Pistons, has the qualities "both on and off the court that you really have to respect."

And watching Hill rise through the pros, Fearing says she's become a passionate fan who can still appreciate the pure athleticism of it all, the excitement, the adrenaline rush--untainted by the dark side. "Grant Hill," Fearing says, "epitomizes the Duke fan that I am."

It's a position she was already in training for at a tender age. The only child of an International Paper executive-father and a homemaker-mother, Fearing grew up in Atherton, California, where nearby Stanford University provided a convenient field of dreams for father and daughter to attend games. "I am my father's only son," she says with a chuckle. "I went to every Stanford football game, every basketball game. I used to go with Dad to their baseball games. I loved sports through him."

She also participated in sports herself, swimming competitively until the age of twelve. At that point, scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, pulled her out of the pool. But, "My family made sure it was never an excuse not to do something." So she took up tennis, playing despite the ten-pound brace on her back that restrained her from lifting her head to serve. No problem; she learned to serve underhand. She went to dancing school to meet boys. She spent one summer as an exchange student in Japan, picking up Japanese from scratch. She shrugs off any suggestion of teen-triumphing-over-the-odds. But one has to wonder.

For college, she chose Duke for its distance, its academics, and, of course, its sports. She minored in political science, and majored in basketball, to hear her and longtime pal Jane McCall '76 tell it. "She was an avid fan," recalls McCall, now an emergency medicine physician in Greenville, South Carolina. "We didn't go to too many football games. They were right boring. We used to go to Cameron Stadium and sing chants that were derogatory to other teams." Streaking was in, both McCall and Fearing say. So was hanging at Bassett dorm with the same eight girlfriends all four years, snacking on raw cake batter, and arranging class schedules around soap operas. "She was a people person, easy to meet and get along with, real goal-oriented," McCall says. "If she wanted something, she worked for it 'til she got it."

The spring of her senior year, Fearing realized her salad days were ending and she'd better find a job. Answering an ad, she landed on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide to the late Texas Congressman Jim Collins. She thought she wanted to be a lawyer, but Washington disabused her of that idea. Besides, she'd been recruited to Dallas to work on Collins' re-election campaign and liked the task. "Working on an election is like marketing a product," she observes today. "You're positioning it, making media plans, getting the word out, getting the vote out." Choosing marketing as a career, she left politics for the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where she obtained her M.B.A. in 1980.

A call from a Tuck colleague, Dan Clark, gave her her first job out of business school, again in Dallas, as an assistant brand manager for Frito-Lay. She liked the corporate culture, she liked chips, and why not? Potatoes were in short supply in the early Eighties. It was Fearing's job to crunch hundreds of numbers, examine consumption, bag size, regional preferences. It was tedious all right, but it was also valuable business experience.

In 1983, a personal need brought her north to Pepsi-Cola in New York. Jim Zierick, an acquaintance from business school who used to commute from his job in Louisiana to Dallas to visit friends, including Fearing, had become a very special friend. The couple decided to marry and chose the Big Apple as a probable site for business careers. Fearing called her old mentor Dan Clark at Pepsi, Frito-Lay's sister company, and secured a product manager position.

At Pepsi, she quickly moved up the ladder, the initial reason being her success at positioning a new soft drink called Slice. Named product manager for Diet Pepsi, Fearing faced the challenge of taking on the king, Diet Coke, which had persuaded droves of consumers to buy the brand "just for the taste of it." Fearing's strategy? To mainstream her product and persuade people to drink it, diet or no diet. She masterminded such ads as Michael J. Fox risking life and limb to secure a Diet Pepsi for his gorgeous neighbor, and another satirizing the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun. The ads were smashes, and Diet Pepsi's market share soared.

So did Fearing's personal stock at the company. Promoted to vice president for marketing for Pepsi and Diet Pepsi, she came up with "You got the right one, baby (uh-huh)" campaign. Her ad agency, in turn, came up with the talent of Ray Charles and a tongue-in-cheek trio of look-alike backup singers. Consumers loved it. They voted with their straws.

Fearing performed more marketing magic, masterminding the famous Tyson-Spinks fight and hiring Tyson as pitchman for "the undisputed champ" (like him), Diet Pepsi; she also recruited Donald Trump. From the cola wars, she moved up through the ranks to become vice president for sales, where, as part of her job running Pepsi's bottling operation from New Jersey, she found herself in charge of 200 Teamsters. It was gender confrontation head-on, but Fearing refused to be intimidated. "What I found I had to my advantage was they had never worked with a woman before," she says. "They didn't know if I was the boss, their mother, or their girlfriend; women weren't bosses." But this woman was.

As with any other marketing problem, Fearing had a strategy. As she told Beverage World magazine at the time, "The minute you start looking at yourself as being a woman in business, you look at yourself as being different and having to require special handling." With the Teamsters, Fearing says, "I walked in and didn't see a division. If you treat people that way, they're going to respond. I do not believe people check their brains and personalities and knowledge at the time clock. My belief was, if I treated them with respect, I'd get it back." She was right.

Recruited once again in 1993 by--who else?--Dan Clark, Fearing moved to Nabisco as director of marketing and a year later became vice president and general manager. At Nabisco, she propelled the old "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?" line into the national psyche with a series of class-conscious Rolls Royce-dotted ads. She also created outdoor "Pardon me" advertising on billboards and the sides of buses. She went on to market such familiar products as A-1 Steak Sauce (pioneering the "How steak is done spicy" for the A-1 Bold line), Milk Bone Dog Biscuits, and Cream of Wheat.

A superior of hers at Pepsi in those days, Michael Lorelli, credits Fearing's success to her "incredible insight" into research data. "Judy could take two pieces of research on the same subject--'A is preferable to B' and 'B is preferable to A'--and dig into the methodology and find a plausible explanation," says Lorelli, now president of TamBrands. Always, she performed her task with good will toward workmates, he says. Once, on a cross-country flight, he hid her shoes and played dumb. Beginning to panic, she suddenly shifted gears, grabbed his tie, and coolly cut it into one-inch squares. "Clear one-upmanship," Lorelli says with admiration and a chuckle.

In 1994 Fearing was at Nabisco when the phone rang. It was a headhunter wanting to know if she could suggest someone interested in a senior vice president spot at ESPN. "It didn't take me but a second to say, well, I would." The assignment, after all, was attractive: ESPN, the nation's largest cable network, reaches 63.5-million households through 26,700 affiliates, televising more than 4,800 live or original hours of programming every year. And the subject is sports. Fearing's eyes lit up; the headhunter was incredulous. This was a marketing job, lower down the ladder than her managerial position at Nabisco, he reminded her. "I said, that's okay." Fearing laughs. "Someone was actually going to pay me to do my hobby."

She started work in November 1994 as one of just three women among a managerial team of fifteen. Her job was and is to promote the network to consumers, to fire them up about anything from Indy Cars to the Tour de France. NFL and NCAA fans are born that way; other fans are won. But she had a plan. "We're a huge sports fan," Fearing says of the image she settled on for the network. "ESPN is a sports fan in two ways: the fan who's passionate about sports, and the sports fan who's an authority. On the passion side, we are the Duke basketball fan who lives and dies for the event. On the authority side, we're your friend who rushes past the front page of the newspaper to get to the sports page, and knows all the statistics."

Significantly, Fearing isn't implementing this image just for flagship-ESPN viewers, but for followers of the younger, hipper ESPN2 and ESPN International as well, courting 120 countries. She's also promoting the network off-channel to the ad-trade community and the affiliate community. It's her job to create advertising promotion ideas to take to advertisers, to position ESPN's news programs as a sports authority, and to court viewers with "tune-in" advertising for the next big Duke matchup; or a Davis Cup promotion, using superstars Pete Sampras and Michael Chang; or a Dick Vitale sound-alike contest in league with Mountain Dew.

Faced with the touchy question of promoting baseball's return--ESPN broadcast the opener Dodgers vs. Marlins game--following an acrimonious strike, her gang hit on a "kiss-and-make-up" concept. Comedian Billy Crystal was recruited to do the voice-over on a commercial showing a beautiful woman metamorphosing into nonbeautiful ballplayer John Kruk. What living, breathing guy hasn't experienced the fear that, as Crystal said, "I'll never feel the same again?"

Fearing's work along these lines has barely begun.

"In the past," explains Alan Broce '86, ESPN's director of advertising, "our job consisted of ESPN being a twenty-four-hour sports network. We're not a twenty-four-hour sports network anymore." Instead, the enterprise is connecting to Prodigy on the Internet and Sports Ticker. Deals with magazines and merchandisers are also under way. Fearing, says Broce, started out by completely reorganizing her department to make staffers experts on individual sports, instead of just being experts in advertising production or media buying. As for the ongoing craziness, Broce says, Fearing handles it by being "very high-energy. She likes to be busy, likes a lot on her plate. Since she got here, our sphere of influence has begun to increase, and that's by design."

As busy as she is, however, she's never far from the issues ESPN raises, in terms of media culture and just plain quality. "Sports-TV excess and ESPN have become synonymous, like tourist crime and Florida," writes GQ magazine. "All dialogue about sports on TV begins and ends with ESPN. For ESPN, like 7-Eleven, never closes; it's the convenience store of sports television. Sure, ESPN is great, because it's always there. You're just not sure how long those hot-dog anchors have been spinning around on the grill."

Fearing listens to such criticism nonplused. "For our target viewer, I believe we're serving what our viewers want," she says. "We're constantly evaluating on a scale of 1 to 5 what our viewers think of us: Are we 'excellent' down to 'poor'; and we consistently have a 4.5 rating. If we had NBA basketball [which the network lost to Fox], if we had the Final Four [lost to CBS], if we had more of the premier sports coverage, we'd probably be 5. The economics of the industry are such that nobody's going to dominate these coverages."

There are other industry challenges. ESPN critics were gleeful when Giants retiree Phil Simms up and left the network for CBS before signing his ESPN contract. "We're very disappointed," says Fearing, sidestepping the question of whether lawyers are involved in that disappointment. And Liberty Sports Channel is nipping at ESPN's ratings heels by buying up the regional channels people watch to see their local teams. "A local product is always going to be a threat," she acknowledges. ESPN fills in the gaps, she says, with in-depth analysis shows, which the regionals can't touch.

Of course, the biggest factor Fearing's marketing savvy can't change is the question of the sports celebrities themselves--the question of how much the media are to blame for one guy becoming the gentlemanly Grant Hill while another becomes the substance-abusing Darryl Strawberry or the loudmouth Charles Barkley. And here Fearing relates a telling story about Mike Tyson, dating back to the day the soon-to-be heavyweight champion of the world did his first Diet Pepsi commercial for her, back when he was still relatively unknown. "Here is Mike Tyson sitting on a street curb wearing a Diet Pepsi shirt waiting for the shoot to start," Fearing remembers. "And then he has the fight in Atlantic City, wins in 93 seconds, and a week later we do another commercial.

"We had to hire security guards to keep people away...because he was now a big deal. And I remember he was celebrating his twenty-first birthday when we were at our shoot, and I'm wondering, here is a kid able to sit on a street curb without anyone paying any attention one day, and then you fast-forward two months and have to hire security guards. And I don't know how someone can handle that."

Tyson, we now know, couldn't handle it. But after a humiliating prison sentence and a reported new interest in the Muslim faith, perhaps he's finally grown up.

Sports is like that, too. There's always the hope that it can grow up so the fans, as Billy Crystal said in Fearing's ad, will have something to believe in again. Maybe DiMaggio and the Babe will return one day. And when that happens, ESPN's cameras will be be there on the sidelines, rooting the players on.


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