Some jobs come with a tee. Set the ball on it, swing away, and see how far you can hit it. Tom Ricks doesn’t know those jobs. His jobs start in the rough, where there is no tee to make things easy. His jobs come with a car horn sounding on the backswing and a tree blocking the view of the pin.
Ricks chuckles when asked about his propensity for taking jobs that can jeopardize a career. His latest endeavor, vice president of development for ESPN Local, requires Ricks to imprint a national brand on a local market. In other words, sell the NBA to the corner grocer. He has staff of one…himself. Good luck, you say.
“From a business perspective, I’m a problem solver and a creative thinker and I like to tackle tough problems,” says Ricks (BBA ‘92). “That’s what keeps my motor running. If I don’t have a real challenge in front of me, I tend to get bored.”
Ricks worked for Pure Fishing, Inc., where he yanked the fishing rod and reel company out of a four-year dive in market share. At Kimberly-Clark, his growth plan in an ultra-competitive market increased volume 10 percent in a category that had been growing just 0.5 percent. Before he took his current job with ESPN, Ricks was general manager of BASS, LLC., an outdoor media company that had seen operating profit declines of $14 million in three years. He stopped the bleeding and took revenue to the plus side.
“Stress doesn’t bother me a whole lot,” says Ricks. “I like the pressure. The pressure helps elevate my game.”
In conversation, Ricks sounds like a battle-tested quarterback whose team is approaching the two-minute warning, which is an appropriate metaphor for his current sports business job. ESPN has local web sites in Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Dallas, and his task is to turn on the revenue spigot with local advertising in order to fund those sites.
“The big part of my job is strategy and business development around how we create a local business that is truly authentically local in each of those markets,” says Ricks. “I have to operate it in an entrepreneurial way to build a business—from the ground up—that didn’t exist 18 months ago.”
Ricks went to high school in suburban Atlanta. Initially, he wanted to study wildlife and fisheries biology at UGA, but his parents suggested finance or marketing because they offered a more secure career path. Ricks chose finance and his Terry College years helped him build the fundamentals of business that have carried him along on a nice career arc.
His passions growing up were bass fishing with his father and the Georgia Bulldogs, and eventually he found a way to marry business with his passion for the outdoors.
Ricks is not the only family member who understands how to grow a business. His wife, Vicky, was one of the founders of the youth football program in the golf haven of Windermere, Fla. There are now six divisions in that league and it is thriving even though the Ricks family—which includes three children, ages 10, 8, and 6—has moved to ESPN’s stronghold in Connecticut.
Ricks has two offices—one at ESPN headquarters in Bristol and another in Manhattan—and his task is to take the Worldwide Leader to another level: the grassroots level.
“I help the national sales team define how we sell a local product on a national level—and I work with the local market sales teams to define how we sell the product locally,” says Ricks. “It is a general manager skill set and an operational skill set. Radio has been around forever, digital media has been around a while, but there are still a lot of advertisers at a local level who don’t know a lot about the digital landscape and how best to spend their advertising dollars and how to measure their success.”
If all this sounds likes a daunting task in a wobbly economy, that’s exactly the kind of pressure that Tom Ricks thrives on.