Not long after starting in the media business in 2002, Patrick Ilabaca found out just how creative he was expected to be. As a new Marketing and Communications Manager at Fox Sports International (FSI)—a Los Angeles-based sports programming company owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation—he was caught off guard when his boss walked in one day and placed a blank piece of paper on his desk.
When Ilabaca asked what it was, his boss replied, “That’s going to be an awards show.” FSI was looking to create a pan-regional, Spanish-language program in the same vein as the ESPYs, the annual sports awards event broadcast by ESPN. Ilabaca was charged with the task.
Given the circumstances, it would be forgivable if Ilabaca had thrown in the towel before even getting started. He had no media experience, after all, and there were no guidelines to follow. When Ilabaca asked his boss a series of follow-up questions, he got the same response each time: “That’s your job to figure out.” He literally was starting from square one.
Ilabaca, however, was not that easily deterred. Drawing upon the skills he had learned at Owen, he researched the market and assembled a detailed business plan and PowerPoint presentation—the “whole nine yards” as he puts it. If anything, he probably overdid it. “After the presentation they told me, ‘Next time just make it a nice memo,’” he laughs. The business plan and presentation had their intended effect, though. FSI gave his idea the greenlight, and the show soon became a reality.
When Ilabaca came on board at FSI, the company had just merged with private equity firm HM Capital Partners to form Fox Pan American Sports (FPAS)—the leading Spanish language sports pay-TV business serving North, South and Central America. Premios Fox Sports, as the awards show is called, has since become an integral part of FPAS’s programming.
Now in its seventh year, the show is watched by millions of viewers throughout the Western Hemisphere, and Ilabaca, the Vice President of Event Marketing & Business Development for FPAS, continues to play a role in its success, serving as the Executive Director.
Rolling up his sleeves
If ever there were an industry made for Ilabaca, it is the one he is in now. The son of Chilean immigrants, he has had an interest in international business—particularly within the Spanish-speaking world—ever since graduating from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in economics and Spanish in 1997. He also is an avid fan of tennis, soccer, golf and baseball—sports that are the bedrock of FPAS’s three television channels.
Yet if someone had told Ilabaca in early 2002 that he would soon work for an international sports media company, he probably would not have believed it. At the time he was paying the rent by cleaning out a storage facility on UCLA’s campus in Los Angeles—about as far removed from his dream job as he could get.
How Ilabaca went from earning an MBA to earning barely more than minimum wage is a story in itself. Much of it can be explained as simple bad luck. When he graduated from Owen with a concentration in marketing and e-commerce in 2001, he faced a tough job market. The dot-com bubble had just burst, and Internet startups were disappearing fast. Then came 9/11. Ilabaca happened to be just outside of New York City interviewing for a job when the Twin Towers were attacked. The interview was cut short, and Ilabaca was left stranded in Bridgewater, N.J. “I had no idea what I was going to do at that point. Nothing was panning out,” he says.
Ilabaca’s luck, however, soon took a turn for the better. After moving to Los Angeles, where his sister was living, he got lost on UCLA’s campus and stumbled upon the office of the Southern California Tennis Association (SCTA). Ilabaca introduced himself to the Executive Director and explained that he was looking for employment. The Executive Director, in turn, told him about the tennis stadium storage facility and offered him minimum wage plus a dollar to organize it.
“My ego definitely came into play. I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here? I went to Vanderbilt, I have an MBA, and I’m fluent in Spanish,’” he says. “But I took the job and literally rolled up my sleeves and cleaned it.”
As unglamorous as the job was, it did give him an opportunity to network within the SCTA and learn in advance about any job openings. It also gave Ilabaca the chance to familiarize himself with the organization’s outdated Web site and put together a compelling argument for improving it. When a low-level position opened up at the SCTA, he seized the opportunity to make his case. “They told me I was overqualified at the interview, but I gave them my analysis of the Web site anyway. It turns out that USTA headquarters was interested in revamping each regional Web site, so they hired me for a completely different position,” he says.
Soon after he took the job, fate smiled on Ilabaca once again. While working on the Web site, he saw a list of sponsors for an ATP-sanctioned tennis tournament that the SCTA was hosting. One in particular piqued his interest—Fox Sports International. Ilabaca had a connection to Raúl de Quesada, the Senior Vice President of Marketing at FSI, through a family friend, but it had never materialized beyond an initial phone call several months back. When he asked the Director of Marketing at the SCTA if she knew de Quesada, she told him that indeed she did and that she would be happy to pass along his resume.
During the tennis tournament he met with de Quesada and learned that a marketing position had just opened up at FSI. Ilabaca remembers thinking, “That’s my job,” when he heard the details. The two talked the following week, and de Quesada invited him in for a formal interview. Despite Ilabaca’s lack of experience, de Quesada decided to take a chance and hire him. A year after graduating from Owen, Ilabaca finally had the job he had been looking for. “I was very fortunate to get it, especially since the HR department at FSI wanted someone with more of a media background, but that made me all the more determined to prove myself,” he says.
A few weeks later when de Quesada put that blank piece of paper on his desk, the newly hired Ilabaca would have an opportunity to do just that.
The most of every opportunity
It is fitting that Ilabaca and Premios Fox Sports, the project he was tasked with developing, have enjoyed similar trajectories of success. As the show has grown in stature over the past seven years, so too has Ilabaca’s career. Aside from the third year, when FPAS decided to move Premios Fox Sports’ executive position to Miami, he has been responsible for the planning and production of every show. Ilabaca was offered the chance to move to Miami and remain in charge, but he declined. His presence was sorely missed at that show, and FPAS approached him again about moving East and resuming his responsibilities. This time he agreed, but only after they granted him VP status and expanded his role within the company.
“I love being in Miami. In California I always felt like I was trying to catch up with our offices on the East Coast and Buenos Aires, which at certain times of the year is six hours ahead,” he says. “Being on the East Coast, I feel like I’m the one setting the pace.”
Ilabaca’s broader role within the organization has allowed him to be involved in business development and rebranding efforts. “I always find new projects. That’s what’s so wonderful about media. It’s always changing,” he says. In 2008–2009 Ilabaca oversaw the launch of the new on-air, off-air and online image packages for each of FPAS’s three television channels: Fox Sports en Español, which serves the U.S. Hispanic market, and the two Fox Sports Latin America channels that serve Mexico, Central and South America. The three channels have more than 26 million subscribers combined.
Premios Fox Sports, however, continues to be Ilabaca’s primary focus. “I’m proud that it remains the only awards show of its kind. There are no other programs around that specifically recognize and celebrate the achievements of Latino athletes the way we do,” he says. The show comprises several different categories that honor Latino athletes in soccer, baseball, tennis, basketball, boxing and motor sports. Each year the scope of the show grows, and new wrinkles are added. In 2008 Premios Fox Sports was held outside the United States for the first time—both in Mexico City and Buenos Aires within a three-week period. This December the show will be produced at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Fla.
Yet as the spotlight grows, Ilabaca is careful not to be blinded by it. He has not forgotten how far he has come and what got him there.
“I have an MBA, but it wasn’t beneath me to clean out a storage facility. No matter how entitled you may feel because of your degree or your past experience, you sometimes have to assume a lesser role,” he says. “From there you just have to make the most of every opportunity.”