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Corner Office

ESPN’s leap into the major leagues

Kai Ryssdal Sep 4, 2009
Corner Office

ESPN’s leap into the major leagues

Kai Ryssdal Sep 4, 2009


Who: ESPN and ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer.

Education: Earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Denison University.

Personal: Married with three children.

What you may not know: Bodenheimer joined ESPN right out of college as a driver in the mailroom.

Kai Ryssdal: It’s not every company whose offices are almost as well known as it is. But if you’re a sports fan — and maybe, even if you’re not — you’ve probably seen the cubicles and the control room, even the cafeteria of ESPN. We’ve come to their 100-acre campus here in Bristol, Conn., which plays almost as big a role in those tongue-in-cheek ads for SportsCenter as the sports stars and mascots do.

Steve Levy, in a Sports Center ad: That whole Brett Favre was really hard to keep track of. So we had to come up with a system.

Scott Van Pelt: So is it one, if retired; two, if unretired?

Stuart Scott: I think it’s the other way around.

ESPN went on the air 30 years ago, this coming Monday. Slow-pitch softball was the first game on that night. Things are different now. ALong with dozens of cable networks, the ESPN brand reaches across radio, Internet and a line of books, videos games, all the way to a chain of restaurants.

Today on Conversations from the Corner Office, a man who’s been with the company almost since the beginning. I met ESPN President George Bodenheimer in the SportsCenter studios to talk about the network’s smart aleck attitude and what ESPN really means for sports.

This is a big year for ESPN, 30 years on the air. You’ve been here 29 of those years. When you first started, literally in the mailroom, did you have any idea that this is where you’d be sitting 30 years later in the middle of this complex?

Bodenheimer: No. Back then when it was considered absolutely crazy to have a 24-hour network devoted solely to sports.

Ryssdal: How much of the phenomenon, though, that you guys have become is because people are so passionate about sports? I mean, if you had been a show about welding or something, I don’t know that you’d be where you are today.

Bodenheimer: No, it’s about the passion of sports. One of my early jobs here was to drive around Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi and sell ESPN to cable operators. And I’m telling you every town I’ve pulled into a cable operator would say to me, “You know, George, this is a sports town.” And every town in America believes they’re a sports town. And ESPN came along at a time to tap into that.

Ryssdal: There must have been a fair amount, though, in those early days as you were doing sales and marketing, of you making your pitch to somebody and them saying, “ESPN what?”

Bodenheimer: Oh yeah. We had a lot of that. And those early stories of people thinking it was a headache powder. I mean, it was a Spanish network. We were misthought of a lot in the early days, but it was pretty easy to describe once you talked to somebody. It’s 24-hour sports and the notion quickly caught on.

Ryssdal: One of the things I think that has helped you guys get where you are is the attitude that you have. You’re not stuffy about it, you’re relaxed, some would say irreverent, some would go farther and say “cocky.” Is that intentional? Did you plan that from the beginning?

Bodenheimer: No, I can’t say it was planned from the beginning. It just grew up here. I mean, we take our sports seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And we also believe that the notion of sports should be fun and that people want to be entertained and they are inviting us into their homes. Let’s have some fun.

Ryssdal: Give me some insight into your business model. When you start thinking about bidding for a golf major, as you’ve been doing, or the recent contract with the SEC in college football. Walk me through that process.

Bodenheimer: Well, essentially, as sports fans we want to acquire the things that we ourselves in effect would want to watch. So we’ve been on a run where we’re buying world-class properties, whether it’s the British Open, the SEC football and basketball contract. So we’re improving our offerings to fans.

Ryssdal: Do you worry about the price of those contracts and that it might eventually become unaffordable for you to keep going?

Bodenheimer: I mean it’s certainly something that I think about, but I wouldn’t say I worry about it. You know, we’ve never said we have to own everything here and we in fact don’t today. So, if things get priced where we can’t afford them, we’ll shift our direction.

Ryssdal: Are we ever going to see ESPN doing the Super Bowl?

Bodenheimer: I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. I mean, if we’d had done this interview 15 years ago and you had asked me, “Do you see ESPN with the Masters, with the British Open, with the BCS championship, with Monday Night Football?” I probably would’ve given you a similar answer. So I’m ruling nothing out.

Ryssdal: This is probably like asking your parent to pick their favorite child, but do you have a favorite sport that you follow?

Bodenheimer: No.

Ryssdal: Oh c’mon!

Bodenheimer: No, I like them all. I’m fans of all those sports.

Ryssdal: A favorite team?

Bodenheimer: This is getting worse.

Ryssdal: I’m trying.

Bodenheimer: No, I’m not going there. My favorite team is my son’s high school football team. That’s my favorite team.

Ryssdal: George Bodenheimer, he’s the president of ESPN. George, thanks a lot.

Bodenheimer: My pleasure.

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