A Subway Ride with ESPN's Mark L. Walker: Making Business Development a "Contact Sport."

Jason Papp
Founder & Editor-in-chief
May 14, 2024

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“The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they do." - Kobe Bryant

It's a nippy evening in December, the end of the final day of Web Summit, and I'm wading through the 20,000 attendees rushing to the metro to make their journey home. The day had been busy but productive, ending with a Puma press conference and a selfie with Thierry Henry, and now we're all cramming onto the platform to catch the red line toward the river. The carriage I join is crowded.

LISBON - Grabbing the remaining seat, I sit down and look up, only to find myself opposite the very man I'd been looking to speak with the entire week: Mark L. Walker, Head of Sports Business Development & Innovation at ESPN. "You can't write this." I thought, ironically.  Two metro stops later, I am thinking, "Mark has to be in THE GOODS- how do I introduce myself? - A one-liner? No - don't mention the weather." Abruptly, we both become sitting ducks to one of the oldest forms of salespeople. A chap comes trudging down the carriage tapping his tin and touting for spare change. This guy is a professional con artist, I thought. I'm starting to feel like Poirot. My eyes are darting, Walker to the tin man, tin man to Walker. I wonder if Walker will be the first of the carriage to fall for this guy. He wasn't. United in the fact that we'd both avoided the hustle, I said, "They're professionals." To which Walker leaned back into the carriage bench, nodded and said, "So am I." We're talking and, at times, yelling above the rail squeal about why I moved to Lisbon, the best restaurants here and where Mark recommends grabbing breakfast in New York.

It's Café Lalo, by the way, on West 83rd. Mark said it is a very special place for him. It opened about the time he first moved to New York in the '80s "but seems as if it's been there forever." In just over five decades, ESPN has established itself as the global source of sports information and entertainment.

From partnerships with Disney and the creation of ESPN+ to the release of major series like "Man in the Arena," ESPN is pulling no punches when it comes to business development. And though the company has always been an innovator, the past few years have seen more risky shots from the network than a Stanley Cup Playoff. One of the people responsible for this dramatic expansion is Mark L. Walker.  

As you know, Walker is Head of Sports Business Development and Innovation, though his background is not in new business but law. After graduating from Stanford University Law School, he began leaving his unique mark on companies like PolyGram, Yahoo, and – interestingly enough – Disney. Walker headed up global franchise strategy and planning for Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products in the latter role as a SVP.

Blue Bottle Coffee, Gramercy Park, New York.

"If you're in New York and looking for coffee, I still have a little West Coast in me, so I'm partial to Blue Bottle Coffee. They're very fussy about their pour over, with a lot of weighing and measuring; Salumeria Rossi on the Upper West Side is your best stop for dinner.  With house-made pastas, it's very small, friendly and very charming."

Salumeria Rossi, Upper West Side, New York.

Though his achievements in the position were numerous, Walker is more likely to describe his role at Disney simply as "building relationships." Walker told me he approaches business development and branding through this "relationship-building lens." He also offered some valuable advice to business development leaders whose brands might be looking to review their strategies going into another new year beyond covid. "We're living in a watershed moment," Walker stresses. "It's a generational transformation. More than ever, strategies need to be dynamic and opportunistic.

One of my mentors always said, Take the time to make a detailed, thoughtful plan. Write it down. Then, fold it up, put it in a drawer and forget about it. The point is that the discipline and process of creating a coherent and thought-ful strategy are important." However, Walker says, "The importance is in the process, not necessarily in pinning down the outcome." Being dynamic and opportunistic has served Walker well in his three years at ESPN. During that time, he's been responsible for growing ESPN Edge.

ESPN Edge and Verizon collaborate with NHL to launch The Drop AR Mini Games

Launched in 2021 with Accenture, Microsoft and Verizon, the ESPN Edge Innovation Centre explores technologies and innovative approaches in sports media.  Walker is also leading the Business Development Centre of Excellence and helping push countless more new platforms in all areas of sports media. Still, Walker sees room for improvement in the US's approach to business development. "Frankly, I think business development as a function has stagnated somewhat domestically," he says. "Sure, deals are getting done. But other than perhaps the forced innovation of increased video conferencing, there is stagnation in process and methods. In places like Portugal, Ireland, and Israel, there is a certain energy and iconoclasm that will help reinvigorate the functional environment."      

And while Walker has built his career around his ability to foster that energy in his teammates, he remains confident that it's "everyone's job" to contribute to business development. "Human, interpersonal relationships are at its core," Walker says. "Valuing and supporting those relationships has to permeate the organisation – that's everyone's business." Walker again falls back on his relationship foundations when asked what skills are most important to a leader in today's business landscape. He states, "Ultimately, it's about listening. Listening to the market, your colleagues, and your partners. Listening to your family. It's stunning how many opportunities I've identified just by listening to how my kids consume content." One such opportunity was realised in February last year when ESPN and The Walt Disney Company announced the launch of Andscape.  

Andscape is a rebranding of the popular website, The Undefeated. Launched in 2016, The Undefeated served as a media-driven hub for race, sports, and culture discussions. With Andscape, Walker and his team hope to push that discussion into book publishing, film, television, and even music. According to Raina Kelley, Andscape's Editor-in-Chief, the site is "a place for folks to lean into all facets of their identity. All of their 'ANDs'–and experience an extensive and inclusive view of the Black landscape. With visionary artists, writers, thinkers, and creatives contributing to all aspects of Andscape, our audience will be captivated and inspired by how we connect with them and how they connect with us." Walker said, "There is an incredible team shepherding the development of this broad and inclusive media portfolio devoted to the Black audience, and we are confident that their work will spark conversation and feeling among our consumers, communities, and beyond."

This graciousness and support of others is a hallmark of Walker's leadership style. When I asked him about the proudest moment in his career thus far, his remarks were less about him than they were about how he had influenced his teammates. "Over the years, I helped bring so many exciting and innovative things to market; however, I'm proudest of developing the folks who've worked with me," Walker says. "Whether it's my former administrative assistant (now a partner at a major law firm) or the creative director (who now is a puppeteer for a legendary producer of kids media). It has been a great pride and privilege to be a small part of helping people achieve their dreams."  

Indeed, success is a team sport for Walker, whose own leadership journey has featured plenty of twists and turns. "I draw inspiration from almost anyone who has a real passion for their craft, for what they do. That energy is contagious."    I'm curious about Walker's opinion of the metaverse. "Anything that allows sports media to extend fan engagement and deliver ever-richer experiences for sports fans is great." He expresses, "Eventually, the actual and virtual versions of sports will draw ever closer, perhaps to the point where fans can seamlessly switch between what's happening and what they want to happen for their team." Adding to Walker's point, we are seeing the beginning stages of this right now. Take, for instance, the NHL.

The NHL's new immersive tech was on display during a recent Sabres-Devils game. Michelle Farsi/NHL

In April last year, the Sabres and Devils game included the blocky design of characters from Roblox, the globally popular virtual universe. At the same time, an immersive game experience was on offer via an Oculus headset, making you feel like you were on the ice or peering down from the top of the arena. According to ESPN, the NHL sees the former as something that could be used as an alternative stream to a live game -something young fans might watch on Twitch, where the virtual action is augmented with things like exploding nets when a goal is scored. Dave Lehanski, the NHL's Executive Vice President of Business Development and Innovation, sees the VR experience as an entry point for the NHL into the metaverse.      

Roblox offering an alternative way for fans to engage with a live NHL game. Michelle Farsi/NHL

My stop comes before Walker's, and we part ways as suddenly as we met. "Let's keep in touch," he shouts above the metro door alarms signalling their close. I give him a thumbs up from the platform, and as I walk up the metro steps, I can't help but smile ear-to-ear as the carriage moves off.    

There's no denying that with Walker at the helm, ESPN will continue to develop its brand until no new niche is left unturned. And Walker's approach to leadership and business development is something that people of all backgrounds can emulate. From small, independent agencies to Fortune 500 companies, everyone benefits when organisations take a "relationship-building" approach.

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Jason Papp
Founder & Editor-in-chief