As ESPN’s top contract negotiator, David Preschlack has been screamed at, vilified and threatened with being thrown out of a window. But the opponents who worry him the most are the ones who remain calm.
“When they’re emotional, they’re not at their best,” he said. “But when they’re calm, they can be much more intense, they’re more strategic; the margin of error is slimmer.”
Mr. Preschlack-whose title is VP of national accounts, affiliate sales and marketing-has been leading ESPN’s often contentious contract negotiations for the past two years. He was the lead player during 2003’s carriage renewal negotiations with Cox, a deal-making process that became so heated that even viewers had to choose sides as the two companies launched dueling Web sites and ad campaigns.
Though Mr. Preschlack orchestrated ESPN’s aggressive public response (“Don’t Let Cox Take Away Your `SportsCenter”‘), he insists that taking a negotiation to the viewers isn’t his preference.
“We’re prepared to demonstrate our position,” he said. “We’ve never been proactive about negotiating in the press without being provoked.”
Mr. Preschlack should have no trouble representing the ESPN party line. After he graduated from Denison University in 1995, the network gave him his first job out of college, starting him as a videotape librarian. In 1996 he joined the affiliate sales and marketing department as a sales coordinator and was promoted through the ranks.
His toughest negotiation, he said, wasn’t with a Cox or a Charter but rather with New Jersey’s Helicon Corp. He was 25 and it was his first time leading a negotiation. “At the time, I thought that was the biggest thing in the world,” he said.
Since then, Mr. Preschlack has learned a thing or two about how to sway others to his way of thinking. The most important tactic, he said, is learning to listen.
“Don’t presume you know what somebody wants or doesn’t want,” he said. “What may be readily transparent to me in how a product may help them, it’s best to listen and ask a lot of questions. Second piece of advice is don’t take anything personally. Some are screamers and yellers and you can’t let that affect you. You gotta keep your emotions in check.”
There is one opponent stance, however, that gets under his skin: “When they just focus on the cost of the product and not the value of the product,” he said. “I understand that it’s part of the negotiation, but they must value the product or we wouldn’t be talking in the first place.”
Many would find such a statement ironic from ESPN, a company that is perceived as relentlessly bottom-line driven. But it’s that value-or perceived value-that makes all the difference. When asked to rank the various ESPN entities in terms of negotiation difficulty, Mr. Preschlack noted the product doesn’t even matter, since ESPN will still try to extract the greatest possible value.
“We place a value on it, so it all becomes difficult,” he said. “Our fair exchange of value is inevitably going to be more than what other people have in mind.”
And that’s why ESPN has Mr. Preschlack.