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ESPN Executive Gives Women’s Basketball Team a Pep Talk

ESPN exec Christine Driessen, Coach Gaitley, and Marianne Cooper rally with the women’s basketball team before their first NCAA appearance on March 22.
(Photo by Bruce Gilbert)

One of the most powerful women in sports business took the time to come back to Rose Hill, where she offered advice and encouragement to the women’s basketball team on the heels of their first-ever Atlantic-10 championship and just before their March 22 first-round matchup in the NCAA tournament.

“What an incredible year you’ve had,” said Christine Driessen, GABELLI ’77, executive vice president and chief financial officer of ESPN and a Fordham trustee fellow.

Joined by her twin sister, IBM Managing Director Marianne Cooper, FCRH ’77, Driessen chatted with the A-10 champs in the media room of the Rose Hill Gym on March 19, three days before the team’s trip to Waco, Texas, to face the California Golden Bears.

“You embody teamwork, you embody perseverance,” said Driessen, giving a special shout-out to senior guards Abigail Corning and Erin Rooney. “Your leadership is unbelievable. What an amazing record.”

Christine Driessen, executive vice president and CFO of ESPN, and her twin sister, Marianne Cooper, managing director at IBM.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

And she praised Coach Stephanie Gaitley, who transformed a squad that didn’t win a game six years ago into one that last year fell one point short of winning the A-10 title, and this year upset top-seeded Dayton to win the championship. The team’s placement as the No. 10 seed in the Notre Dame Regional bracket of NCAA Tournament was announced on March 17 on ESPN, which featured a live feed of the players cheering and celebrating in the gym.

When she and her sister were at Fordham in the late ’70s, Driessen said, it was really only men’s sports that got any attention or publicity.

“So now, for you guys to be the story, the headline—it’s just so fantastic.”

Driessen started as controller at ESPN in 1985, when the company had 450 employees and one cable network. Today, with her as a driving financial force, ESPN offers multiple networks, radio shows, syndicated programming, and online platforms, with multimedia rights deals for Major League Baseball, Monday Night Football, U.S. Open tennis, and more. Driessen was instrumental in the launches of ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNews and espnW, a digital channel that caters to women as athletes and fans. She’s also lobbied for robust coverage of women’s sports throughout the network, including a recent eight-year commitment to the WNBA.

“The quality of what you guys bring to the table in your own sport is so phenomenal. It’s a quality game. There should be fans interested. So that’s what were trying to do,” said Driessen, who was ranked by Sports Illustrated in 2013 as the third most influential woman in sports.

The successful siblings, who were roommates at Rose Hill and remain very close, shared their tips for getting ahead and balancing priorities—especially for women.

“Never sell yourself short or take yourself out of the running,” Driessen told the players, who have begun planning for their careers after they graduate from Fordham.

“I never got a raise or a promotion that I didn’t ask for,” she said. “It’s so critical to have the confidence to ask.”

The pair also offered some interview tips, with Cooper suggesting that the players leverage their sports background, including their willingness to be a team player. “Give an example of your toughest challenge in your sports career,” said the executive, who was instrumental in launching Fordham’s Center for Digital Transformation, co-sponsored by IBM. “And,” she added, “ask for the job!”

Both sisters have prioritized the mentorship of other women, and each acknowledged that they’ve made tough choices when it comes to balancing work and family.

Driessen said she took on “the championship of women in the company,” in part by starting ESPN’s Executive Women’s Forum for those at the VP level and above. She also insisted that women get nominated for more awards and be asked to sit on external panels.

Cooper said that leaving her kids in the morning when they were young was tough. “I want to make sure that I’m giving as much as I can to justify it,” said the mom of two, who sits on the board of the United Way, and whose young-adult children are also Fordham alumni. Providing a nice lifestyle for her family is important, she said, but more important is “to have a positive impact on someone else. That’s a pretty strong motivator.”

Listening to her sister, Driessen said, “It’s like hearing me talk!” The two shared many infectious laughs throughout the evening, completing each other’s thoughts and even hinting that they might start a consulting business together someday.

“I feel that what Fordham gave [us]was an incredible foundation built on what is really important,” Cooper said, “a great sense of business judgment and integrity. And my kids feel the same way.”


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