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Wide World of Deportes
Sometimes taking a phone call can change your life
by Nathan Dinsdale
[sports ambassador] Juan Alfonso was in the middle of a meeting inside the Manhattan offices of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency when his cell phone hummed to life. At first, Alfonso ignored the call. Then the phone began buzzing again. Same caller, same result. Moments later, bzzzz bzzzz. Finally, Alfonso relented.
“You know that friend who always calls and says ‘I have the perfect job for you’?” Alfonso says. “It was that guy. So my friend says ‘I have the perfect job for you’ and I’m thinking, ‘You got me out of a meeting for this?’”
Of course, this wasn’t just any job opportunity. Alfonso listened to the details with increasing curiosity. The company was ESPN. It was an international marketing position specializing in Latin America. The job called for someone with an MBA and 10 years of experience who was passionate about sports and who’d previously worked on male-oriented marketing campaigns. Oh, and they needed to be fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.
“I was like, ‘Check, check, check,’” Alfonso laughs, “’that sounds like me.’”
That was back in 2004. Five years later, Alfonso is the vice president of marketing and program development for ESPN International, responsible for ensuring that the multimedia juggernaut lives up to its slogan as “the worldwide leader in sports.”
In fact, he is uniquely qualified for the position. Alfonso’s parents hail from Argentina, and he spent the first eight years of his life in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His family relocated to Quito, Ecuador — following his father’s job as an auditor for PricewaterhouseCoopers — before moving to Los Angeles when Alfonso was 14.
“After all of that moving you can pretty much survive anything,” Alfonso chuckles.
He quickly developed an affinity for Southern California; when his family returned to Brazil, Alfonso decided to stay. He attended St. Francis High School near Pasadena, and when it came time to decide on a college, the University of San Diego was an easy choice.
“There are so many things that I loved about it,” says Alfonso, who earned a BBA from USD in 1994 and an MBA in 1995. “It has this great mix of physical beauty and values. You’re there and gone in the blink of an eye, and it isn’t until you look back that it really hits you how amazing the place is.”
Of course it didn’t hurt that Alfonso met his future wife, Michelle (Watson) ’94 at USD. But he so relished his academic experience that he can still rattle off a list of business classes (finance, negotiation, operations, advertising) that have an impact on his professional life to this day.
“The hardest thing about my job is that so many things hit you at one time and you have to organize everything in your head quickly and efficiently,” Alfonso says. “I think that’s where USD really helped me. I had a lot of professors that affected me profoundly as far as the way I think, the way I organize my thoughts, the way I view the world and how I’m systematic in my approach to solving problems.”
Alfonso, who served as president of the International Student Organization at USD, specifically recalls an operations class taught by professor Jean-Pierre Amor as “one of the hardest but most rewarding classes” and an advertising course taught by professor David Light as the “spark that maybe I could do this sort of thing for a living.”
Upon graduating from the School of Business Administration, Alfonso decided to work in the international trade arena, as his tenure at USD had kindled an interest in imports and exports. But he experienced a rude awakening after moving to San Francisco to work for a company that imported flowers and vegetables.
“I hated it,” Alfonso says. “I was working on straight commission, and it was pretty cut-throat. If you sell, great. If you don’t, it’s good-night.”
A friend who worked at a San Francisco advertising company invited Alfonso to visit his office, and when he saw the casual atmosphere — “People brought their dogs to work and everybody was wearing shorts and flip-flops,” he laughs — Alfonso was hooked. That eventually led to positions at venerable agencies like Hal Riney & Partners and Ogilvy & Mather working on campaigns for brands like Saturn and Miller Lite. Then came the call.
One of the first major projects Alfonso became involved with after arriving at ESPN’s New York offices was the launch of ESPN Deportes, a multimedia blitz catering to the national Hispanic community.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” Alfonso says. “That was built from scratch, and it went from zero subscribers to about 4.5 million in five years.”
Alfonso ascended the ranks of ESPN International and now oversees a vast network of efforts aimed at expanding the company’s brand — including television, radio, print, Internet and mobile applications — across the globe. That also means catering to markets where, say, jai alai is more popular than the NFL.
“The channel you see here with Chris Berman or College GameDay isn’t the same channel you would see in Brazil,” Alfonso says. “I personally deal with just an incredible range of sports, everything from cricket in India to baseball in the Dominican Republic to soccer in Argentina to rugby in the U.K.”
Alfonso regularly travels to South America and has visited everywhere from Austria to India — with upcoming stops ranging from Singapore to South Africa — in order to refine and expand ESPN’s international operations. And while he’s devoted to meeting the interests of a specific audience, that doesn’t mean he always shares their same passions.
“Cricket is still baffling to me. I watch a cricket match and I have a big question mark over my head,” Alfonso laughs. “But the thing I’ve learned is that for a sport to make it abroad — whether it’s, say, soccer in the U.S. or baseball in Europe — people need to have a basic understanding of the game and they have to have something to care about, some emotional attachment or storyline.”
There was no greater reminder of the emotions evoked by sport than when Alfonso watched giddily as the USD men’s basketball team stormed into the 2008 NCAA Tournament and scored at the buzzer to upset the University of Connecticut.
“When we hit that last-second shot against UConn …” Alfonso says, pausing to savor the memory, “My scream reverberated throughout the office. That was a sweet day for me.”
In fact, Alfonso — now a father of two — says he savors pretty much every day since he left that meeting in 2004 to answer his phone.
“I thought I was going to become cynical and that this would become just a job, and it hasn’t,” Alfonso says. “I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to essentially have a hobby that I get paid to do.”