The Billion Dollar Bet

George Bodenheimer sits among the potted ficuses of the Hyatt Regency Greenwich’s glass atrium, the blue of the morning sky reflected in the blue of his large, slightly world-weary eyes. Last year, though only fifty-six years old, he walked away from the top job at the sports media giant ESPN. “People ask me, ‘How could you leave? You’re still young.’” But the internal compass that quietly made Bodenheimer the most powerful man in sports (according to Forbes and other media reckoners) now pointed him toward the exit. “I had thirty-three wonderful years at ESPN,” he says. “I was ready for a change.”

Bodenheimer’s ascent is something of an industry legend. His career began inauspiciously, in 1981, when he accepted a mailroom job at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, for $8,000 a year. In those days Bristol was a nowheresville between Waterbury and Hartford, and headquarters itself a patchwork of trailers surrounded by satellite dishes, porta potties, and mud, mud, mud. ESPN served 10 million households by then—not bad—but served them chiefly with college basketball, men’s soccer, tape-delay college football and other events that the major networks considered table scraps.

When Bodenheimer retired in 2014, after thirteen years as president and two as executive chairman, ESPN was an international empire valued at $51 billion—far more than CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN or Fox, and more than the NBA, MLB and the NHL combined. It’s the main financial driver of its corporate parent, Walt Disney, and is largely responsible for keeping its minority (20 percent) parent, Hearst, in the black. Today ESPN serves more than 100 million households in the United States alone; broadcasts in more than 200 countries; boasts eight domestic TV networks and fifty international networks, plus radio networks, a popular magazine, and a massive Internet presence that includes grantland.com, The New Yorker of online sports journalism. ESPN is the most profitable media brand in the world.

Who, then, is George Bodenheimer, the man most responsible for ESPN’s stratospheric growth in the twenty-first century? One comes away from meeting him impressed with his kindness and modesty, but wondering how a man possessing those characteristics so markedly could have risen so high. Rosa Gatti, ESPN’s longtime communications chief, now retired, laughs when she hears this assessment. “George was understated and humble,” she says. “He was certainly dedicated and hardworking and smart, but he was not one to promote himself.”

Bodenheimer seems allergic to trumpeting his accomplishments. He does not mention that, the day before our interview, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced he would receive a Lifetime Achievement Sports Emmy. When he does talk about himself, he usually winds up talking about other people anyway. A striking number of his sentences begin something like, “The two gentlemen who deserve the credit are…” or “My successor really deserves credit for…” This sense of selflessness has carried over to his ESPN afterlife. His two major projects, he says, are looking after his parents, who live at the Edgehill in Stamford, and heading a capital campaign for the V Foundation for Cancer Research, founded in 1993 by ESPN and Jim Valvano, the celebrated basketball coach then suffering from bone cancer.

At least Bodenheimer is in a reflective mood; reflective enough, these days, to have written a career-spanning memoir titled Every Town Is a Sports Town, out this month from Grand Central Publishing. Even his own book, though, is not really about him. It’s about the grand narrative of ESPN—its obscure beginnings, its near-death experiences, its growth and attendant pains, its bold emergence on the world stage. “When we first started and wanted to televise the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, people thought we were nuts,” Bodenheimer says. “Now you have the President of the United States filling out brackets.”

“ARE YOU WILLING TO SHOVEL SNOW?”
George Bodenheimer is Meriden-born but Greenwich-bred. His parents, Julian and Vivian, moved to Halsey Drive in Old Greenwich in 1963, when Julian took over management of C.O. Miller, a once-venerable department store in downtown Stamford; Vivian worked as a teller at Putnam Trust.

“My whole life was sports,” Bodenheimer recalls of his boyhood. “I had all the opportunity, all the desire—everything but the talent.” (The talent went in greater measure to his sister, Sue, who won a state doubles tennis title at Greenwich High School.) “In the junior high days, in the fall and winter, we would go to the Crystal Palace in Norwalk to play hockey, we’d play street hockey in the afternoon, and then I’d watch the Rangers on WOR Channel 9 at night. That was pretty much my Saturday.” Come spring George turned his attention to the New York Mets. “When Tom Seaver moved to Greenwich in the early seventies, I remember that sparking my interest in televised sports. We started watching the Mets religiously.”

After graduating from Denison University in 1980, George tended bar at Mickey’s (Sundown Saloon today) on Greenwich Avenue and wrote letters to Major League Baseball clubs, hoping to avoid a life of corporate drudgery in a field that stirred no passion. No luck. It was an old Halsey Drive neighbor, Bud Lamoreaux, a producer at CBS News, who pointed George toward ESPN. “Well, if you’re interested in sports television,” he said, “there’s this new network starting in Connecticut. I could probably get you an interview, if you throw my name in a letter.”

Bodenheimer had never heard of ESPN. The twenty-four-hour sports network was the oddball scheme of one Bill Rasmussen, who had recently been fired as communications director of the New England Whalers hockey team. The entrepreneur in Rasmussen then set the humble goal of a statewide TV network for Connecticut sports. He had no thought, initially, of running his network around the clock, since there would be nothing to fill the airtime with. The plan changed when he discovered he could lease a twenty-four-hour transponder on an RCA satellite, capable of beaming a signal anywhere in the country, for less money than it would cost to broadcast terrestrially in Connecticut only. But how to use his twenty-four hours? Rasmussen and his son, Scott, were stuck in traffic on I-84 outside Danbury when the idea flickered to life: all sports, all the time, with a jazzy highlights show (now known as SportsCenter) as its linchpin. On September 7, 1979, ESPN broadcast its first, aggressively undistinguished, event: a slow-pitch softball game pitting the Milwaukee Schlitzes against the Kentucky Bourbons.

Bodenheimer’s job interview lasted all of two minutes. Among the questions: Would he be willing to shovel snow? The prospects, and the pay, were so unglamorous that Bodenheimer hesitated to pursue ESPN. Sitting down with his father for a beer and chowder at the old Clam Box restaurant in Cos Cob, he expressed his reservations. Julian listened carefully. Here was a chance for George to work in one field he loved—sports—and another that intrigued him—television—and do so pretty close to the ground floor, with no dense corporate structure above him. Then Julian asked the clarifying question: “If ESPN offers you a job, you’ll be making a career decision, not a money decision, won’t you?” That was all George needed to hear. It helped a little, too, that ESPN had robust Greenwich ties: Chet Simmons, the network’s first president; Chris “Boomer” Berman, its first bona fide star; and Scotty Connal, its first executive vice president—and George’s boyhood hockey coach—either lived or had lived in town.

In 1982 Bodenheimer landed his first serious job at ESPN—he’s careful to mention that nobody else applied—selling the network to mom-and-pop cable operators in the Southwest. (Here he met another Texas-based Connecticuter, Ann Pugliese, a sales assistant for a satcom company in Dallas. They married in 1984 and settled in her hometown, New Canaan, where they raised three children: Kate, an actress; George, a Tesla Motors store manager; and James, a scouting assistant with the Atlanta Falcons.)

Out in the American hinterlands, cable TV consisted of a wire running from a town to an antenna on a mountaintop. The purpose was merely to improve picture quality from existing broadcast networks in the cities. It bears remembering that when ESPN debuted, not even CNN existed; the cable frontier was wide open and the idea of a 500-channel universe was science fiction. So when Bodenheimer made his sales calls—picture him driving down lonesome highways from Texas to Mississippi—the response invariably went like this: “Well, George, twenty-four-hour sports sounds like a crazy idea, but if you’re giving it away”—ESPN actually paid operators to carry it—“we’ll put it on, because, you know, this is a sports town.”

Every town in his region saw itself as bound together by a common love of sports. “We had miniscule ratings and events that nobody else cared to televise,” Bodenheimer says. “But ESPN tapped into something that was ready to be tapped into. The timing couldn’t have been better.”

To illustrate ESPN’s prescience, Bodenheimer gestures toward the Hyatt’s gazebo bar. All four of its large flat screens are tuned to ESPN.

SURVIVAL OF THE SMARTEST
One might look back at the early ESPN and call it freewheeling. Or madcap. Or gonzo. When covering its first NFL draft, Chet Simmons’ instructions to SportsCenter anchor George Grande were, “Make it up as you go along. If it starts not to work, just get off the air.”

Historically, ESPN has given its anchors and analysts ample leeway to create bold on-air personas, embodied in such signature catchphrases as Dick Vitale’s “It’s over, baby!”, Dan Patrick’s “En fuego!” and Stuart Scott’s “Booyah!” Craig Kilborn mischievously set out to prove that any old word could become a catchphrase. The word he chose, “salsa,” duly appeared on fans’ placards. Other anchors were known for their touch with the one-liner, particularly Keith Olbermann (“I can read his lips, and he’s not praying”) and Kenny Mayne (“I’m not sure what that pitch is, but it tastes like chicken”). And then there was Chris Berman with his punny nicknames (Bert “Be Home” Blyleven) and the stentorian home run call: “Back-back-back-back-gone!”

ESPN was sometimes cheesy but always lively. Before the Big Three networks understood what was happening, the upstart sports network spawned addicts from coast to coast. Still, there was a massive early crisis to overcome. ESPN was losing money—$25 million a year—far outpacing what then-parent Getty Oil was prepared to invest. “There were huge question marks as to whether we would survive,” Rosa Gatti remembers. Bodenheimer says ESPN’s business model was badly flawed. In order to stop the bleeding, ESPN would have to flip its model, charging cable operators to carry it instead of paying them to carry it (up to this point, ESPN had only a thin stream of ad revenue to supplement Getty’s investment). The man who brought this hard fact to light was Greenwich resident Roger Werner, a McKinsey consultant who later headed ESPN. “Roger basically said, ‘If you don’t reverse this business model, there isn’t going to be an ESPN,’” Bodenheimer recalls. “And that was our pitch to the cable operators. It wasn’t an easy conversation.”

In fact, the cable operators were livid—and Bodenheimer, out in the trenches, faced their wrath head-on. “We had anger, we had lawsuits, we had broken windows,” he says. “Customers were coming down and getting angry with the cable operators, who were threatening to drop ESPN. It was definitely hot.” Once, in Kansas, Bodenheimer was hauled up before a town meeting to defend ESPN’s apparent treachery. “I was so outgunned, but it didn’t matter,” he says. “This fellow in blue jeans in the back row kept saying, ‘I don’t give a damn about all this. I just want ESPN.’”

The blue-jeaned Kansan stood in for millions who affirmed the national craving for ESPN; no cable package could risk being without it. Meanwhile, the new business model proved to be revolutionary: Where traditional networks relied solely on ad revenue to keep them afloat, and where premium cable outfits like HBO had no ads but charged subscriber fees, ESPN now did both. With two revenue streams, money poured in, and ESPN could finally afford to buy the rights to top-tier sports.

Bodenheimer names 1987 as the pivotal year. The network’s breakout event, a little surprisingly, was America’s Cup sailing from Australia, in which the United States sought to recover the cup we’d lost in 1983 after 132 years of successful defenses. ESPN’s innovative live coverage—lipstick-sized cameras mounted on the boats—captured the public’s imagination, creating new fans rather than simply serving the existing sailing crowd. The same year, ESPN bought the rights to Sunday Night Football, a sure sign of arrival in the big time. “I think then,” Bodenheimer says, “it started to feel like a different company to us.”

A LEGACY OF LEADERSHIP
Steve Bornstein, the powerful and intimidating president of ESPN, tapped Bodenheimer to succeed him in 1998. (Bornstein left to head Disney’s Internet portal go.com in California.) “Yes, it was a surprise,” Rosa Gatti says. “He wasn’t well known outside the company, and we wondered what the Wall Street analysts’ reaction would be. Well, George connected with them immediately. They loved his down-to-earth style.”

As for substance: Bodenheimer had already proved himself a master strategist. It was largely his doing when, in 1998, ESPN landed a full season of NFL games for the first time, hugely amplifying the network’s prestige. (Before 1998, ESPN split Sunday Night Football telecasts with Ted Turner’s TNT.) Disney’s über-boss, Michael Eisner, thought ESPN could afford to buy a full season, but only at an enormous loss; the desired multiyear deal would constitute an all-out hemorrhage. So why bother? Bodenheimer told Eisner that, with Sunday Night Football fully in his arsenal, he could negotiate 20 percent subscription rate increases every year, to the tune of billions in revenue. Impossible, Eisner said. When Bodenheimer insisted, Disney held its breath and approved a mind-boggling $4.8 billion expenditure for seven years of NFL games. “What George Bodenheimer did is the most important thing done in broadcasting since [CBS’s] Bill Paley stole all of NBC’s stars,” Eisner later told authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales for their oral history ESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun. ESPN board member Steve Burke added, “That NFL deal really made ESPN.” (Because top-tier sports rights are so expensive, viewers today pay about $6.50 a month for ESPN—four times what they pay for anything else in their basic cable or satellite package.)

Bodenheimer also had a vital, if occasional, impact on programming—rare for someone who came up through sales. When Bornstein balked at a costly millennial documentary project called SportsCentury (produced out of Westport), it was Bodenheimer who convinced him to go forward. At the very least, he argued, the $25 million investment would bring ESPN a new level of prestige. And so it did. SportsCentury won an Emmy and a Peabody and propelled ESPN into the realm of serious filmmaking. The network continues with its acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series, on subjects ranging from Michael Jordan’s minor league baseball odyssey to Ted Williams’s cryogenic sleep.

As president, Bodenheimer wore his authority lightly but firmly. “He would try to lead by consensus, but he was never afraid to make the call,” says Chris LaPlaca, ESPN’s current communications head. “He was an unbelievable listener. If he didn’t understand what someone said, he’d say, ‘Can you explain that again, please?’ Some would be, ‘Aw, jeez, I’m the president, I can’t appear to not understand. I’ll just nod my head and do what I want.’ Right? Not him. So now the person [doing the explaining] feels more important, more confident, more engaged—and George gets smarter. He did that with everyone in the room. It was always a richer, deeper, better conversation.”

Bodenheimer remarks, “I never thought of myself as the guy whose responsibility was to make all the decisions and chart the growth in every strategic way. My god, what pressure, if you think of yourself that way! Rather, I wanted to empower the people who I knew had creative ideas.” He wanted to foster a climate of intelligent risk-taking. “Then it was up to me to tell a good idea from a bad one.”

Not every idea at Bodenheimer’s ESPN worked out well. Hiring Rush Limbaugh to do NFL commentary was audacious, certainly, but it backfired when Limbaugh’s mouth ran too hot. (He portrayed the media’s love of quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is black, as a kind of affirmative action. A forced resignation ensued.) Then there was Playmakers, ESPN’s scripted dramatic series about a fictional pro football team. The show, which dealt in themes like drugs, infidelity and homosexuality, was a hit with critics and viewers alike. But a thin-skinned NFL pressured ESPN to kill it after one great season. (The incident raised a thorny, and recurring, question: Does ESPN’s business relationship with the NFL cause it to pussyfoot around the hard stuff? ESPN covered last year’s spate of real-life scandals vigorously—but suspended star columnist Bill Simmons for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar. The debate continues.)

By every important measure, though, ESPN entered a golden age under Bodenheimer. The number of employees grew from 1,900 to 7,000. The old Bristol mudhole metamorphosed into a glittering 116-acre campus. ESPN doubled its number of both domestic and international networks. It more than tripled its value (from about $15 billion when Bodenheimer took over). It introduced popular new shows like Pardon the Interruption, a Siskel and Ebert-style debate show featuring sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, and E:60, ESPN’s version of 60 Minutes. It struck huge multiyear, multiplatform deals with the NBA and MLB. It finally won the greatest prize in sports programming, Monday Night Football (at a present cost of $1.8 billion per season). And its eponymous magazine surpassed the two-million circulation mark, winning numerous writing and design awards along the way.

In 2001 ESPN overcame a ratings crisis deemed inevitable by many industry savants—the theory being that TV began with a big bang and would expand and fragment ad infinitum. The math dictated ratings drops for everyone. “George would not accept those reasons,” Rosa Gatti recalls. After convening a meeting—here at this very Hyatt—Bodenheimer had his experts dig into the guts of ESPN’s progamming and root out whatever wasn’t working. New shows were added; ratings climbed. It was then that the sports world began to see the unassuming Bodenheimer as a kind of media magician. By 2003 ESPN was performing so well that Bodenheimer was named dual president of ESPN and its broadcast sibling, ABC Sports. (also Disney-owned.)

But amid ESPN’s incredible growth, Bodenheimer himself seems most proud of preserving the company’s familial culture, a culture in which employees are encouraged to go forth and shine. As he writes in Every Town Is a Sports Town, “If you put people first, profits will follow.”

 

 

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