Rosa Gatti: TrailblazerPublished February 25, 2013
Rosa Gatti's eyes filled with tears on a Tuesday afternoon in January as she referenced the Newtown, Conn., tragedy from just a month earlier.
Sitting in a conference room in ESPN’s Manhattan offices, Gatti was talking about ESPN’s disaster relief efforts and how she oversees when and where ESPN offers help.
More than four decades ago, when Gatti was starting out in the business as one of the sports industry’s pioneering female executives, those tears would have made her self-conscious or would have been seen as a sign of weakness.
But on the eve of her retirement from ESPN, when Gatti tears up, it’s no big deal. She recognizes it as an emotion, no different than anger.
■ FROM THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT
■ REFLECTING ON RETIREMENT
This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the 2013 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees, and the issues in which they will be featured, are:
Feb. 4: Ron Shapiro
Feb. 11: Pat Williams
Feb. 18: Roy Kramer
Feb. 25: Rosa Gatti
March 4: Donald Dell
March 11: Harvey Schiller
Gatti, 62, recalled a time during ESPN’s early days when executives — both male and female — would have viewed the emotion differently. She recalled a meeting with one ESPN executive when she felt so passionately about a topic that her eyes began to well up. She doesn’t remember the topic, but she’ll never forget the executive’s response: “You don’t need to get emotional over it,” he said.
“My emotions come out in different ways,” Gatti said. “I didn’t cry. When I was upset about something my eyes would get teary. I was emotional about it, just like a man yelling or pounding his fist on the desk. I tried to enlighten that it was stereotyping that only women got emotional. I’ve seen many men get emotional.”
It sounds trite to say in 2013, but throughout her career Gatti felt that she had to demonstrate that women could work as hard and as diligently as men.
|Executive Editor Abraham Madkour talks with staff writer John Ourand and assistant managing editor Tom Stinson about Rosa Gatti and the 2013 class of Champions of Sports Business.|
“She embodies all the great qualities of the ESPN culture,” said Steve Bornstein, an NFL executive who served as ESPN’s president from 1990 to 1998. “She’s got brains, ambition, integrity, tenacity. The fact that she was the first woman in these different places — she was the first woman SID, the only PR person for ESPN — it’s an extraordinary reflection on her ability.”
It’s also a reflection of the number of barriers Gatti has had to break down throughout her career.
The meme of Gatti as a trailblazer started before she embarked on a career in sports. It started in 1968, the year she graduated from high school in the Philadelphia area.
That also was the year Villanova started accepting women as full-time students. Gatti’s father is a Villanova alum, and she decided to follow his lead and attend the Catholic school in suburban Philadelphia.
|Rosa Gatti has spent 33 years at ESPN leading its communications while also shepherding in much of its diversity and guiding many of its charitable and corporate outreach efforts.
“That was foreshadowing of my future,” she said.
Shortly after graduation in 1972, Gatti took a secretarial job in Villanova’s athletic department. She stayed in the job for about two years, until the school’s sports information director, Bob Ellis, resigned midway through the football season.
The only person who truly knew how the operation worked, Gatti filled in for Ellis, which meant traveling with the football team — a daunting task for a 24-year-old woman in the mid-1970s.
Eventually, Gatti applied for the SID job full time, but the school’s administration hesitated. Some coaches, Gatti was told, were concerned about having a young woman traveling with student athletes.
“Even though I was 24 years old, I had some conviction that has lived with me throughout my career to say, ‘Which coaches? Most of the coaches are supportive,’” Gatti said.
It turned out that the school’s football coach was the one who voiced objections, which surprised Gatti since she already had been traveling with the football team.
That wasn’t the only objection. Some Villanova administrators worried that sportswriters — the epitome of a men’s club, especially in the 1970s — would stop writing about Villanova if it chose a woman to oversee its sports information department. Critics wondered how a young woman could connect with older male sportswriters to pitch stories, Gatti said.
“Isn’t it crazy to talk about these things? But these were legitimate questions. They really were,” Gatti said. “I was 24 years old out of college. I wasn’t sure how people would react to me.”
There was little reason for concern. In fact, Gatti quickly realized that her role as a female sports information director turned more attention on her than she was expecting. Local television stations across the country wanted to interview Gatti. The New York Times featured her in a story. At the time, a woman running sports information for a major university was a classic man-bites-dog story, and the sporting press couldn’t get enough of it.
After two years running Villanova’s sports information department, Gatti left to take the same position at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
It was during her four-year tenure at the Ivy League school that Gatti attracted the attention of ESPN, then a fledgling TV network that was based just two hours away. In fact, it was Gatti’s interactions with ESPN executives during the 1980 Frozen Four that led the network to offer her a job.
Brown hosted the event, and ESPN held the rights to televise it. In the fall of 1979, Gatti and ESPN’s producers canvassed the Providence Civic Center to pick camera positions for the event. As the event drew nearer, though, ESPN’s producers, many of whom previously had worked for NBC, told Gatti they would have to scrap their original plans and set up new positions.
“And Rosa said, ‘Oh, no you’re not. You said you were doing this. We’ve sold the seats. That’s it. You’re going to have to live with it,’” Bill Rasmussen, ESPN’s founder, said with a laugh. “I think that’s what really got people at ESPN intrigued — the idea of this lady SID taking it to these [former] NBC guys and lashing them left and right.”
Rasmussen returned to Bristol and told the network’s president, Chet Simmons, about Gatti. He raved about how she handled the situation during the Frozen Four and suggested that Simmons consider hiring her to set up ESPN’s communications department.
Simmons, who died in 2010, was intrigued. He wanted diversity in his ranks. In fact, Simmons already had hired an African-American, Greg Gumbel, and a woman, Sharon Smith, as on-air talent. Now behind the scenes, he hired Gatti to set up the network’s communications department in July 1980.
“In the first few months, I thought I was going to be fired. I really did,” Gatti said. “I didn’t know the television lingo. I didn’t know satellite and cable terminology. I was reading trade articles two or three times to understand them. And I’m supposed to be the PR representative and know this stuff.”
Gatti, of course, found her footing. Working from a trailer outside of ESPN’s offices, Gatti hired several PR executives who still are with ESPN today, including senior vice president Chris LaPlaca and vice president Mike Soltys.
“You had to walk over some 2-by-12s through the mud to get to her trailer,” Rasmussen recalled. “Nobody went out to visit the trailer. Nobody. Why would you walk through rain and mud and snow to go visit Rosa in the trailer? But that’s where she was running everything.”
It didn’t take long for Gatti to become a trusted confidant to ESPN’s top executives. During her career, she worked for six of ESPN’s seven presidents — she arrived after Rasmussen had been replaced. The rapport she established with these executives enabled Gatti to expand her role from communications to human resources.
“Because of the respect she had, everybody knew her,” said Bill Grimes, who served as ESPN president from 1982 to 1988. “She had her finger on what was going on. I would occasionally say to her, ‘Rosa, how’s the morale? What’s going on? Is there anything that I should know?’”
Gatti started overseeing human resources in the mid-1980s, which was around the time that ESPN was beginning to develop a reputation as a glorified frat house, replete with tales of unprofessionally wild behavior and oftentimes sexist conduct.
“Back then, media was very much a men’s club, and sports media was an almost exclusive men’s club,” Bornstein said. “So she saw a lot of stuff that she constantly rose above. She made us better. She had a perspective and point of view that was different, which in the early days of ESPN was important because it really set the groundwork of why we want a diverse workplace.”
Gatti’s biggest impact on the sports industry has nothing to do with communications. Rather, she has been instrumental in creating a diverse workforce at ESPN. Senior executives like Bornstein supported Gatti’s push toward setting up a diversity committee. But it was Gatti’s drive and tenacity that led to its creation.
For years, Gatti had wanted to set up a committee within ESPN to help women. And for years she was stymied. At the time, ESPN executives did not want to potentially set a precedent where every different group would look to set up their own committee.
|Gatti, shown in 2011 (with Lesley Visser) receiving the Mary Garber Pioneer Award from the Association for Women in Sports Media, has been a mentor for many women through the years.
“I was at an ESPN event and some of the women came up to me and said, ‘You know, sometimes some of those comments are made to me,’” Gatti said. “I’ve talked with people from many other companies. They had these same exact scenarios.”
That led Gatti to approach Bornstein with a new plan. She wanted to set up a diversity committee, one that also would incorporate women’s issues and would concentrate on recruitment, advertising and training for women and minorities.
Today, more than 20 years later, ESPN has one of the most diverse workforces in the industry.
Every two years, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida gives a report card on how well the Associated Press Sports Editors hire women and minorities. Over the past six years, the institute’s report has praised ESPN.
“In each of the reports in 2006, 2008, 2010 and now, ESPN’s statistics for sports editors and columnists raised the numbers. Without their key hirings, the statistics would be even worse than they were in 2006,” writes Richard Lapchick, director of the institute.
“I think we’ve made great strides, and we’ve been a leader in many categories,” Gatti said, “but we still have work to do.”
In championing the diversity committee, Gatti carved out a new role for herself that moved beyond communications. Though she did not know former college basketball coach Jim Valvano well, she helped push for the creation of the V Foundation, a cancer charity named in his honor.
“She’s still at it. She does so much to help other people without drawing attention to herself. That’s what I hope you get into your article, because that’s her,” said George Bodenheimer, who served as ESPN’s president from 1998 to 2011. “She does not want to put herself front-and-center, draw the limelight. She has done so much to support this company in diversity, outreach, enrichment and communications.”
Gatti’s success with the V Foundation spawned another opportunity at ESPN in corporate outreach, which includes coordinating the company’s disaster relief efforts. She mobilizes the company’s resources and makes sure its relief efforts are not duplicated.
Gatti coordinated ESPN’s response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest.
“George [Bodenheimer] wanted us to really grow the corporate outreach more. He really was behind it,” Gatti said. “I had made all these recommendations that we centralize corporate outreach in one area, that we needed more people.”
Gatti does not relish her role as a pioneer for women in sports. In fact, she still genuinely seems surprised when people talk about the importance she’s had on their careers.
Gatti recalled a USA Today article where Chris Plonsky, University of Texas women’s athletic director, described Gatti as a mentor. Years after that interview, Plonsky still feels the same way.
|Starting with her days of working in a trailer outside of ESPN’s offices, Gatti became a trusted confidant to many of ESPN’s top executives.
“I’ll never forget when Chris Plonsky was quoted, because I was just doing the job,” Gatti said. “Here I was becoming a pioneer, a mentor. I didn’t even think about that. I knew I was paving the way. I knew that there was tremendous skepticism.”
While Gatti does not necessarily see herself as a trailblazing pioneer, she has made a point to provide support to women from her early days at ESPN. When she first started working at ESPN, she set up a lunch date with each woman who joined the company as a way to offer support and guidance for women entering into what could only be described as a boys club.
As the company grew, Gatti started to fret that she didn’t have enough time to support all of the women who joined the company. But she soon realized that the women she mentored were, in turn, becoming mentors themselves.
“When I was starting my career, it was often said that women didn’t help other women,” Gatti said. “I still hear it, and it upsets me greatly.”
As Gatti winds up her career at ESPN this week, she can be assured that her position as a trailblazing pioneer for women in sports is secure.