Laura Gentile remembers staying home from elementary school sometime in the early 1980s so that she could watch the NFL draft on ESPN. The former Duke field hockey star turned vice president of espnW is no recent convert to the sports giant.
Gentile grew up in Lake Grove, N.Y. — it’s on Long Island — and was all set to play field hockey at nearby Princeton. But she made a visit to Duke and fell in love. “The campus was beautiful, the team was welcoming and I saw a chance to make a difference. Duke was an up-and-coming program. We had a real opportunity to take it to the next level.”
Gentile and her teammates did just that. She was named first-team All-ACC three times and later was selected by the ACC as a member of the league’s 50th Anniversary Team. In 1992, she keyed Duke to its first NCAA Tournament appearance and first tournament win, a 4-2 victory over Virginia. Gentile was a second-team All-America in 1992 and her 58 career goals and 129 points still place her in Duke’s top 10 lists.
She majored in English and Political Science, planning on becoming a lawyer or perhaps an English professor.
This all changed in her junior year, when she took a marketing course. Gentile loved the emphasis on teamwork. “Being on a team with goals and common objectives reminded me of field hockey. It was very collaborative.”
She graduated from Duke in 1994, received an ACC postgraduate scholarship and earned an MBA in Marketing and Organizational Behavior from Boston College. Gentile then worked seven years in marketing. Much of that time was spent at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, where she helped develop an award-winning advertising campaign for IBM.
But Gentile still missed the sports world, missed its structure, its sense of teamwork, the striving for the greater good.
“I asked myself what was next for me. What would be my perfect job? I approached ESPN and they were receptive.”
She started at ESPN in 2003. The network put her marketing expertise to work, first as senior director of brand management within ESPN Consumer Marketing, then as an assistant to the president.
Gentile helped design many of ESPN’s iconic images, including the SportsCenter promos and Monday Night Football ads. She says she was a “branding expert.”
But Gentile thought that ESPN could do a better job in the area of women’s sports. “ESPN had always served women,” she says. “But it was apparent to me that in the long term, women could be served better by ESPN. We needed to better understand and support our audience. There was no dedicated platform for women sports fans.”
Gentile proposed a new approach. After two years of planning, which included input from the movers and shakers of women’s sports, espnW launched in December 2010, with Gentile as vice president. “The goal was to build a team immediately. We put a core team in place early.”
Gentile says social media was so important to espnW that her first hire was Katie Richmond, a social media specialist. “Women love to share, communicate and converse,” Gentile says. “We needed to make a site that reflects that. Social media remains a vital part of what we do.”
But espnW has increasingly developed more in-depth content, including this year’s look at 40 Years of Female Athletes, tied into the 40th anniversary of Title IX. ESPN relied on a panel of journalists and women’s sports experts to pick the top 40 female athletes of the post Title IX era and unveiled the list one at a time on SportsCenter and on the espnW website.
There are no immediate plans for a spinoff network, Gentile notes, although original programming should increase. “We want to produce more women’s specific programming and also do a better job of integrating women’s story lines into the existing framework.”
Gentile says her target audience is women 18-34, a demographic that she says has grown up with “sports in their DNA. There’s a whole new generation out there. Sports is not just a boy thing anymore. The trend lines drive increased media consumption for women’s sports.”
This summer’s London Olympics present espnW with an opportunity to expand its profile. First-person perspectives will include blogs from athletes like Abby Wambach, Maya Moore and Tamika Catchings, while writers like Julie Foudy and journalist Jackie MacMullan will provide in-depth dedicated features. Social media will continue to play a large role.
Gentile says espnW will focus not just on glamour sports like gymnastics and track and field but also lower-profile sports like water polo and table tennis, filling a niche left empty by other media outlets.
Gentile plans to spend at least a week at the Olympics, working with ESPN’s advertising partners. This will be Gentile’s first time at the Olympics and she makes no attempt to hide her glee at marking this off her to-do list.
Gentile still finds time for her alma mater. She tries to get back to a Duke field hockey game at least once a year and remains close to the program. She’s also involved with Dr. Henry Friedman’s CAPE (Collegiate Athlete Pre-Medical Experience) program, which is designed to give female students at Duke opportunities to pursue medical careers. Last February, she was on campus to moderate a panel discussion during “Winning Women: Advocates, Educators and Athletes,” the university’s celebration of 40 years of women’s athletics.
Gentile says it’s working out quite well at ESPN. “The ESPN culture emphasizes teamwork. The team is paramount. It was just what I was searching for.”