ESPN’s Chris LaPlaca talks about changing sports media landscape

Chris LaPlaca is a senior vice president of Corporate Communications at ESPN. In January, I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Fordham-Saint Bonaventure game. LaPlaca has worked at ESPN for 38 years and has been senior vice president of communications since 2008, where he oversees public and media relations. When I met him at the game, my aunt and uncle introduced us  My Uncle is good friends with LaPlaca, given that they both attended St. Bonaventure, and are huge Bonnies fans. My uncle knows that I have a goal of working in sports and told me I should go up to LaPlaca at some point during the game to ask him some questions. At halftime, he was kind enough to talk to me. Afterwards, he gave me his card to contact him if I ever needed more advice in the future. With LaPlaca’s busy schedule, I was able to get in contact with him recently to interview him regarding how he got to where he is today. 

Sophie Fischer: Hi Chris, thank you so much for taking the time and doing this with me.

Chris LaPlaca: Happy to do it. I’m on a little bit of crunch time; we have a lot of things popping here today! We have a big meeting with Disney that’s happening that I need to be a participant in. Anyway, let’s just go for it!

SF: Alright awesome! It’s just a couple questions and the first one is where did you come from and what college did you attend?

CL: I grew up in upstate New York in a small town called Whitehall, and I went to Saint Bonaventure University for my undergrad.

SF: What did you study at Saint Bonaventure?

CL: I was a journalism/mass communication major and I studied a lot of journalism. I studied how to write, I studied all forms of media, from print to television. There wasn’t such thing as digital and the internet back then. I studied public relations. You know I got a really great, well-rounded overall communications at a large institution.

SF: So, with all that, how did you figure out what career you wanted to go into at ESPN?

CL: That’s a good question. When I went to school, I wanted to be a sportswriter. That was my idea, and I wrote for the campus paper for two years, and I liked it. At the end of my sophomore year, my friend, who was a senior, came to me and said there was an internship in the sports and public relations area for the University, and it would pay me $60 every two weeks. This friend said you would be great for this. You figured out the journalism side, maybe you want to look at this other side of sports PR, so I said I’ll take a whack and I got the gig. For my junior and senior years, I represented the University with outside media with our sports team (mainly our basketball team) which was excellent. We went to the NCAA tournament, we had a great team, and so I learned a lot about how to communicate in different ways. And that actually set me on a path that I then followed in, and that’s why you are talking to me right now.

SF: When did you start at ESPN?

CL: I joined in July of ‘80 and it’s an interesting story. My senior year of college, we hosted Villanova for homecoming weekend, and I work in the press box, right? So that’s what I was doing at that time, and for the school servicing, the media helped them write their stories. So, we win in a last second shot by a friend of mine, who lives right across the hall from me, and it’s great because again it’s alumni weekend, and it’s going to be a big party because we just won. So, I’m done with my work and I look to my right and I see this guy who is the sports communications guy from Villanova, and he’s trying to service all these papers that didn’t come to the game. So, I had a good angel and bad angel moment. I looked down and I see a party starting to happen because now the basketball court’s been cleared, they’re bringing out tables, they’re bringing out kegs, and we’re going to have a reception party for alumni who returned. And I looked to my right and I see this guy needs help. I know I’m graduating in a few months and the good angel said, “Hey man, if you go help that guy, maybe it will get you a job. You graduate in May.” The bad angel said, “Well yeah, but we won, and there’s beer.” So I ended up helping him and he turned me on to a job in sports communications at Brown University, which I got. Then, my boss at Brown got hired onto ESPN nine months after I joined, and she brought me with her, and I’ve been here ever since, growing with the company. So, if I made a different decision in those 30 seconds after the Villanova game, maybe I’m not here. What I learned from that is the importance of maximizing every opportunity presented to you, and being aware of what opportunities are being presented to you. No one told me go help that guy, I had the thought in my own mind. Thank god I did.

SF: Wow that’s crazy! So, when you started in 1980 how did it change from now? Media is totally different than it was back then.

CL: Well there was no internet, cable tv wasn’t even a big deal when I joined. ESPN was maybe in 1 million or 2 million homes; cable television was not the predominant distribution at the time so you couldn’t stream a thing. Local streaming, what is that? There were terms that weren’t even invented, mediums weren’t even invented, technology hadn’t come into existence. It was just broadcast to cable television. Cable television, what’s that? So, I took a chance, but it wasn’t a massive chance because I’m 22-23 years old, I’m not married, have no mortgage, have no children. Everything I own can fit in a small car. So, if I come into ESPN and it doesn’t work, so what? What have I lost? Nothing. I haven’t been in the work force for more than nine months! So, it was a bit of a risk but at the same time I had nothing much to lose, and as it turns out, we went onto something, cable TV flourished, and ESPN was in the vanguard, helping it flourish. And now, since then, we do so many other things. You can watch highlights on your phone, we have an app, we have network all around the world, you can stream us on every available steaming platform, you can get us from cable, we put programming on ABC so we have the broadcast as well, we have leading positions at every available way people consume content, and that wasn’t even thought about when I joined in 1980. It was hope we can survive as a tiny cable tv network were no one knew what cable TV is. That’s where we were.

SF: So what exactly was your position?

CL: I was a communications representative. It was a goofy title, but I did a little bit of everything. I did a little media relations; I was trying to get the games at ESPN televised listed in newspapers. People would look at the daily newspaper to see what’s on tv tonight and we wanted to be there, so I did that. Fans would call and say, “What are you guys? I heard something about ESPN?” So, I was fan relations and consumer relations. I did a lot of things. However, we spoke to the outside world, no matter who the discrepancy ran through our group. My group at the time was my boss who hired me, and me − that was it.

SF: Is that what you do now?

CL: Well, now it’s a lot more complicated. I work with Disney quite a bit. Fans are all around the world. We have deals with every imaginable lead you can think of, we have advertising, advertisers, business partners that are who’s who in the industry. Now it’s more complicated, because we are the leader by far, and so if we sneeze it is news, and we are constantly reacting to outside influences while continuing trying to be proactive to our own agenda. So, it’s a constant bounce, and it’s a 24/7 gig because the sun never sets on the ESPN empire. We like to say that and it’s true. I have a journalist tell me I know something happening at box right now, but I’m not going to write it because nobody cares right now. But if I was at ESPN, I would be blasting that puppy everywhere. Why? ESPN generates clicks. When you’re under constant scrutiny, it’s very challenging. It’s moment to moment you have to be plugged in. It’s not for everybody, but I’d rather be on then some other guys.

SF: I remember the last time I spoke to you at the Fordham game you said your job was very busy, fast paced, so how do you keep up with your family then or work around them?

CL: You just got to be conscious of how you present your work life balance. I have a team that can delegate. We all have to be mindful of how we spend every minute of our day. I’ll leave early to pick up my kid at dance, but I have my phone so if everyone needs me, they’ll find me. The other day I took my daughter, who’s 11, to a Saint Bonaventure game. We spent a great day and night together. I was somewhat connected that I was mostly with her, and if someone needed me, they could find me. It all worked out, so we had a wonderful day − wonderful memories we created together. You can do it if you try, you just have to be mindful every minute.

SF: What kind of advice would you give someone looking for a career in sports?

CL: I would say read as much as you can. You have the Internet now that I didn’t. There’s so much information out there now about what is happening in the industry. You have to be smart about the business. Understand what people are doing and why they are doing it. Understand fan behavior and where you might intersect with it. Like, what are we going to do with the coronavirus, and why did they make those decisions? The ACC is going to have their basketball tournament as normal, others no fans. The Ivy League canceled their tournament, and so why? Why are they doing that and how are they doing it? If you understand the business of the industry, you will understand a lot more about where and how you might fit into it. So, I think you need to read as much as you can and be a student of the industry as much as you can. Another thing is to build as many relationships as you can. It’s still a “who you know, what profile you put out for yourself” kind of industry. We’re not alone in that regard.

So, reach out and make personable relationships. Try to get onto someone’s counter for 15 minutes for a quick conversation. And the way you might do that is, like, “I read today such and such, you guys made this decision, I really want to break into this business. I’m trying to be a student of this industry. I was wondering if you could give me 15 minutes on the phone sometime in the next three weeks so I can learn a little bit.” I think if you can get to the right people, they’re going to find time to help you, because they like people who show initiative. So, it’s a combination of all of that. And you have to have the goods − you have to have done some work. You can’t just sit in a classroom, you have to have some practical experience, so people understand you been into the game at whatever level. So you come into their organization potentially with knowledge, not totally starting from square one. We’re all moving fast; we like people who can run with us, even if they’re just beginning in their career.

SF: What is your favorite part about your job?

CL: I would say the variety. No day is the same. It’s energizing. I’m surrounded by hardworking, super smart, passionate people about sports and about the job they do. That’s an intoxicating thing. There’s energy everywhere you look, and we’re always doing something new. It’s different every day, and that’s how almost 40 years go by really fast.