ESPN sports chief is Frank and fearless

Lynne Frank

FOR the past eight months, her company has been bringing live Scottish and English football matches to the screens of hundreds of thousands of viewers across the UK, but mention the name Lynne Frank and most think of someone quite different from the woman heading up ESPN’s European operations.

In an interview just days after last summer’s swoop on the Barclays Premier League rights previously owned by bankrupt Setanta, presenters on Radio 4’s Today repeatedly referred to Frank as “Franks”. The confusion arose because of the similarity between the broadcasting executive’s name and that of celebrity PR guru Lynne Franks, famed as the inspiration for the chaotic Edina character in Absolutely Fabulous.

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With dark hair, a conservative dress sense and an American accent, Lynne Frank could neither look nor sound more different from the TV persona played by Jennifer Saunders. True to the stereotype of laid-back California, where she was raised, Frank is said to be unperturbed by blunders when it comes to her surname.

Though her name may continue to rouse confusion, Frank has been steadily building ESPN’s brand presence in the UK. Its foothold in the British sports broadcasting market was further strengthened last week when the company won the exclusive rights to show England’s premier league highlights on mobile phones.

The deal, reportedly struck for a figure in the “single-digit millions”, starts in August and runs for three years. Frank described the mobile agreement as “another big step” in the process of building ESPN’s long-term relationship with UK sports fans.

“Mobile devices are an indispensable lifeline for football fans, who expect easy, quick access to the latest goals and action wherever they are,” she said. “Adding these rights will allow us to advance our commitment to delivering great sport across the many screens UK fans use each day.”

The new mobile rights may also help soften the blow at the start of next season, when the number of English premiership games shown by ESPN will drop to 23. This compares to the 46 live matches aired by ESPN in its maiden season.

The drop stems from the history of how the firm acquired the rights in the first place. When bidding time came in early 2009 for English Premier League games to be shown between 2010 and 2013, ESPN was outgunned by both Sky and Setanta. However, the weakening finances of Dublin-based Setanta meant it only succeeded in securing one new package of 23 games, versus the two packages for a total of 46 matches that it held from the previous round.

When Setanta hit the buffers a few months later, ESPN was forced to accept that if it stepped in, it would have half the number of matches in ensuing years that it enjoyed during its first season.

Frank insists her company will secure other compelling sporting rights to see it through the next three seasons of depleted Barclays Premiership coverage. In any event, its Scottish broadcasting will remain unaffected: although ESPN’s rights for the Clydesdale Bank Premier League were also bought off of Setanta, that agreement was struck separately, meaning that ESPN will continue to carry 30 Scottish matches in each of the next three seasons.

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Having lived in London for nearly 16 years, Frank understands the importance of carrying credibility in local markets. In all of the territories under her control, she follows the mantra of acting locally and thinking globally, as reflected in the recruitment of UK broadcasting veterans such as Ray Stubbs to ESPN’s UK channel.

Those American owners – Walt Disney subsidiary ABC and the Hearst Corporation – also have the deep pockets to allow Frank to execute the long-term game plan she says will carry ESPN beyond the 2012-13 season of reduced Barclays Premiership coverage.

She is careful to paint Sky as a partner rather than a competitor, as the Australian-controlled operation is one of the key distributors for ESPN in the UK. But the two will inevitably clash: ESPN’s newly won mobile rights were secured at the expense of Sky. Additionally, there seems little doubt ESPN will want to secure at least one or two more of the Barclays Premiership packages currently in the Sky portfolio when the next round of bidding comes up in 2013.

Striking the balance with Sky will no doubt prove a tricky task in coming years, but Frank waited nearly four years to make the first step into UK top-flight football.

It’s difficult to imagine that there won’t be more to follow.