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George Bodenheimer: Full interview transcript

Marketplace Staff Sep 4, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: George Bodenheimer, good to have you with us.

George Bodenheimer: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Set the scene for us, where are we here? This is a college game day set in ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

Bodenheimer: You’re in the middle of our digital center, one of our studios, college football live as you said; and this is really one of the nerve centers of ESPN. A great deal of product is produced right here. You might have seen our screening room where we have dozens of screeners looking at all the games that are being played all day every day, and cutting highlight packages that you’ll enjoy at home this evening. So there’s really a beehive of activity here which only grows as the day wears on and games start to come on line.

Ryssdal: I noticed walking in, actually sort of latish in the afternoon, that there’s a flood of people coming in and it’s definitely picking up.

Bodenheimer: Yes. We’re obviously a 24/7 operation and it really gets moving by late in the afternoon into all of the games that are played in the evening hours. We’re here to cover and record each one. So we’re busy.

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

Bodenheimer: No. In a word I certainly didn’t. Perhaps others did but it was back then when it was considered absolutely crazy to have a 24-hour network devoted solely to sports. I mean, we were literally laughed at, and nobody thought the idea was worth much or was going to make it and so you would have been hard pressed 29 years ago to think what it could’ve grown to. Having said that, when you worked here you could see signs that what we were doing was catching on — letters from people out of state, references to the company and popular culture, newspapers once in a while, people calling in for rules to Australian rules football. You could start to see that there was a market out there for sports that weren’t necessarily televised regularly.

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 that 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 and, combined with the passion of the people here, has enabled us to grow into what it is.

Ryssdal: There must have been a fair amount, though, in those early days as you were doing 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 with the SPN. I mean, we were mis-thought 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! I mean, we were all sports fans here and most of the employees certainly are today and it should be fun. That’s part of why we all like sports.

Ryssdal: Do you have to be a sports fan to work here or does it just help?

Bodenheimer: Well, it depends what job you have. But we have jobs of all stripes here, so you don’t have to be a sports fan. I don’t think everybody is, but certainly in certain jobs — if you’re producing programs, if you’re cutting highlight tapes, you need to obviously be very well versed into what the product is. So in certain other areas yes, in others no.

Ryssdal: You guys were for many years the upstart. I mean, you were going up against the big ones like ABC and Wide World of Sports and all those things. Now though, you’re the established player and you’ve got Fox Sports and the Versus network. How do you maintain this position that you have?

Bodenheimer: Well, we really stay focused on a couple things. One is our mission to serve sports fans, and we work hard at doing that every day. We try to do that better tomorrow than we do today by creating new products, new innovative ways of producing games, that sort of thing. And the second part of that answer is really the culture of ESPN, which is very hard working, success oriented. We want to continue to succeed. Our people are driven to continue to succeed and to continue to grow this company similar to how we have over the past few years. Our people are motivated. This is a very hard-working place. When people come to ask me about working here, one of the things I say is, “If you’re not prepared to come here and work extremely hard, this isn’t the place for you.” This is a hard-working culture. We put everything we have into putting out the best product we can.

Ryssdal: ESPN has been called the most significant brand of the last 25 years. Certainly in media that’s true and in the sporting world for sure. How do you keep that going?

Bodenheimer: You know, as I’ve said earlier, we stay focused on our mission to serve sports fans. We want to continually expand the company. We just launched a business in England, which is going very well. We have new applications in the mobile business all the time. We’re constantly looking to innovate, utilize technology to continue to grow our business so I guess my answer is there is no sense of “gee it’s nice we made it. Let’s sit back on our laurels”. That mindset does not exist at ESPN.

Ryssdal: Are you about sports or are you about the business of sports?

Bodenheimer: Well we’re about sports. I mean, what drives this company are sports fans and we never lose sight of the customer we’re serving. That’s what drives this company.

Ryssdal: And yet you’re working on things like digital and mobile and broadband applications, and you’ve got ad revenues to worry about and all of that stuff. And so your fortunes really are very closely tied to the business of sports.

Bodenheimer: Yes, they are. I mean, obviously what’s driving us is where fans want to go. Everybody has got a device in their pocket now. It mostly serves as a phone but it’s continuing to evolve. So that’s just one example of how we’re trying to serve fans how they wish to be served. And if you want an article for one of our columnists, like a Bill Simmons or a Rick Riley, or you want a score of your favorite team, or even want to watch some video, our goal is to serve you how you wish to be served, and that’s what’s driving this company.

Ryssdal: I got to tell you I was annoyed when you got Rick Riley from Sports Illustrated. I mean, I’m a Sports Illustrated guy, so I’m showing my stripes, but it was interesting to see that you could get a guy of that magnitude to come over and write for you.

Bodenheimer: Well, he’s doing a great job for us and we are happy to have him.

Ryssdal: What’s going to be more important for this company in 20 years, regular television, cable television or broadband and the Internet?

Bodenheimer: Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer. I’m not sure that I know the answer to that. I would say that it’ll be a combination of cable television and broadband, which is primarily where we are today. But we also have our sister company, ABC. And we are fortunate enough to be aligned with ABC Sports, and we televise a lot of product on ABC as well, so we’re fortunate. We have a number of different businesses that we can continue to move forward. And so I’m hopeful, and I expect that we will be in all three of those as we are today.

Ryssdal: ESPN has contracts with all four major sporting leagues in this country. It’s not a cheap proposition by any means. Do you worry about the price of those contracts and that it might eventually become unaffordable for you to keep going?

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

Ryssdal: You don’t own them today but do you want to?

Bodenheimer: Well, we’ll have to see. You know, I never can answer what I want unless someone tells me what the price is. So if it makes sense in our business model and it helps us serve fans, then sure I would want it. If it doesn’t, then the answer would be no.

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, again as sports fans we want to acquire the sports for 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, the BCS, for example, are just a few examples. This is world-class product, so in our minds when we have opportunity to acquire product like that, that’s world-class products. So we’re improving our value, we’re improving our offerings to fans, so that’s kind of on our list of things we want to do.

Ryssdal: Do you worry at all about the criticism that says, “You know, you guys are taking all these really big properties, all these big games and taking them to cable and taking them away from regular old television?”

Bodenheimer: Well, I think the distinctions there are fading quickly, frankly. No, I don’t worry about it. We’re providing an excellent value to the consumer, and I think that over time all of those distinctions are probably going to fade away.

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

Bodenheimer: I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t know if it’s going to be any time in the real near future, but I wouldn’t rule it out. If we 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: Before we sat down with the microphones on we were talking about Public Radio. Are you a listener?

Bodenheimer: Yes.

Ryssdal: Do you listen to Morning Edition?

Bodenheimer: I listen randomly.

Ryssdal: Did you hear about the Frank Deford commentary a number of weeks ago where he basically took you guys on and said, “You know what, you’re a little too close to the subject you cover. Your fortunes are too closely tied to the sports that you make your living from.” How do you respond to that?

Bodenheimer: Well, first and foremost, I have a lot of respect for Frank, and he’s entitled to his opinion. And I respect that. I don’t agree with the comments that he made but he’s certainly entitled to make them. We have a very clear “church and state” operation here. The business side of our house isn’t talking to the Sports Center side of the house on what we do or don’t cover, and we must always maintain that. The journalistic ethics that are alive and well at ESPN are critical to our continued success, and so we’ll maintain that “church and state” position.

Ryssdal: So you think this is a sports journalism operation?

Bodenheimer: Oh, absolutely it is. And, in fact, if you look at what ESPN produces — Sports Center, Outside the Lines, The Sports Reporters — we produce in a week what other organizations put out in a year. And that’s literally true. I mean, the volume of what’s produced here and the journalistic standards under which it’s produced, it’s very serious to us and we work very hard at it.

Ryssdal: In addition to the big-name events, The Masters and the SEC contract and all that, you guys are now moving into what’s being called hyperlocal programming. I mean, you’re getting into ESPN Chicago and ESPN Los Angeles and specific cities. What took you so long? Other media groups have been doing this.

Bodenheimer: Well, better late than never, I would say. And we focused our efforts on a national basis for 30 years and now we see opportunity to serve sports fans in those cities you mentioned and other cities. And it’s really — you’re here in Bristol today and you see the content that’s being produced — we can and will produce content that is germane to the cities that we are going to go into and serve those fans. So we’re looking forward to expanding that concept.

Ryssdal: Even at the cost of local newspaper sports reporting operations and maybe other local media?

Bodenheimer: Well, I don’t look at us as responsible for what’s happening in the newspaper business. And we’ll provide good opportunities in many cases for excellent writers and serving fans, so we certainly look at it as additive to what we are bringing to the community.

Ryssdal: What’s next for this company? What are the next, big couple of things that you are going to do?

Bodenheimer: We’re focused on growing outside the United States. I mentioned earlier the network we just launched in England, which is off to a great start. We were fortunate enough to acquire a package of English primarily games, and we have a channel we just launched there which is off to a great start. So I would say international growth is on our list of things to do outside the U.S. We are already in over 200 countries. We want to continue to grow what we have outside of there as well as digital media, which we touched on earlier: mobile phones, broadband, etc. There’s good opportunity there, I believe.

Ryssdal: Your name keeps popping up on lists of most powerful people in sports, usually at the very top and sometimes at the number one spot. Are you buying that?

Bodenheimer: Whenever somebody asks me about those lists I say, “You know how that list was generated?” And they say, “Well, no.” And I say, “They called my mother.” You know, it’s fun and you get a kick out of it for an hour or so, but I don’t give it much credence.

Ryssdal: But let’s think about this for a second. You are, to quote your own tagline, the “worldwide leader in sports.” You’re running this shop. You have very ambitious goals. What’s wrong with owning up to having some sway over how things go in this business?

Bodenheimer: It’s not our style. It’s not the ESPN style. It’s not our culture. We are very proud of what we built over 30 years but it’s really not the product of any one person, it’s the product of the employees. There are over 6,000 people. They’re the ones that deserve the credit.

Ryssdal: Do you have a lot of contact with folks at ABC Sports?

Bodenheimer: We have combined the efforts so it’s really … we’re all one now producing product for both entities.

Ryssdal: In fact, we get ESPN on ABC right?

Bodenheimer: That’s correct.

Ryssdal: Strategically, why did that make sense?

Bodenheimer: Well, because we — the Disney Company who owns both ESPN and ABC — want to put our focus on the ESPN brand name when it comes to sports. And so we have a great opportunity to do that every weekend with the sports on ABC. As well as it’s worked very well for the ABC affiliates, because the ESPN brand name is the number one brand name in sports. So when you get your sports delivered by ESPN, it raises the luster and the sales capabilities and it raises the whole boat of what we are doing on ABC and the research proves that out.

Ryssdal: So we are eventually going to see this line between cable sports and broadcast sports just go away.

Bodenheimer: I think so. I think it’s fading very quickly. Talk to anybody under age 40 and ask them to describe the differences. It’s just another channel. And that’s even before you get to the Internet when people start talking about it’s just another click. So I think all of media … the lines are going to be blurring between these, in effect, “Old business” conventions. I think those lines are blurring.

Ryssdal: How are you guys doing keeping up with this whole New Media thing? What are you doing there?

Bodenheimer: Well, we’re pedaling as fast as we can. I mean, it’s difficult. It changes rapidly. You’d better be prepared to change your business model quickly and not get too stuck on what you were doing yesterday because it could be outmoded by tomorrow. We’re staying focused on it, as I’ve said earlier. We’re serving fans who all want to be served using these devices and using their computers. We did our fantasy football draft just last night, in fact, and it’s fascinating for me to sit through those and to see the expertise and the passion that our people are putting into developing products like that. And you might think, “Well, gee, you mean Fantasy Football? Well, yes, I mean thats a lot. We got millions of fans who are now utilizing Fantasy Football to be better or enjoy being the bigger football fans. So that’s another challenge for our company to supply good products in there for the fans to use.

Ryssdal: This might be heresy sitting where we sit here in the middle of this campus, but do you ever step back and say, “It’s just a game. It’s just sports?”

Bodenheimer: I think we do do that, and that’s what I said earlier. We take our sports seriously but not ourselves too seriously. Let’s have some fun. Let’s show the lighter side of sports. And that’s one of the things we know people love about Sports Center. Our anchors and our talent have fun on the air. Again, we feel privileged to be invited into your home and we want to help you with your enjoyment of sports. So it should be fun.

Ryssdal: Do you worry at all that sometimes athletes and the people actually involved in the games sort of play to you guys? They know you are there and they know your cameras are there and they are just sort of hot-doggin’ it to get on Sports Center?

Bodenheimer: No, I don’t think so. I mean, maybe you get a little bit of that now and again. That isn’t a long-term strategy for any one athlete or for us. So it’s not something I lose any sleep over.

Ryssdal: How often do you talk to Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, or David Stern at the NBA?

Bodenheimer: I’d say pretty frequently. We have big relationships with them for lots of money and lots of games and telecasts. And we have a lot of business dealings. So our contact with the leagues and the commissioners is pretty frequent.

Ryssdal: So what do you talk about?

Bodenheimer: What do we talk about? We talk about new opportunities. I mean, you sit down and write a contract and 2 years later there are new businesses that weren’t even thought of when you wrote your contract. You’d have to sit down and try to address how you might deal with those, and so you acquire more rights. You talk about sales and how sales are going. It’s the normal things business partners would talk about.

Ryssdal: Is there anything that you are not interested in doing? Is there something that just doesn’t appeal to you as a business model?

Bodenheimer: I’m not interested in having us sway away from sports. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re good at. We want to stay directly involved in presenting sports to our consumers. That’s how ESPN is going to make sure it’s stays strong for the next 30 years.

Ryssdal: Pretty broad definition, though. I mean, you’ve got restaurants, and you’ve got Internet channels … It’s sports writ very, very large.

Bodenheimer: Yes, although in your example there, the restaurants are a minute part of business. So really what I meant by that is I want to stay focused on what we do, which is presenting … let’s call it electronic sports — whether it be TV, broadband, mobile, what have you, to our fans. That’s our business around the world.

Ryssdal: What about you personally? What’s next for you? You’ve been here awhile.

Bodenheimer: Well, you know, I think I have the greatest job in the world. I’ve been here a few years as you’ve mentioned and I have no plans to do anything different. So as long as I’m fortunate that they’ll have me around here, that’s where I plan to stay.

Ryssdal: How much of what you do in your job as president of this company is apparent in the product that you put out?

Bodenheimer: That’s a great question. A little, some, I mean I watch a lot. I watch, listen, read. I’m a voracious consumer of what we put out, and I have my comments.

Ryssdal: Are you the kind of guy who will call the executive producer of Sports Center and say, “You know that segment? I don’t know.”

Bodenheimer: No. I don’t do that. I’ll give my comments the day later to the executive in charge and just give him my two cents, and I always follow it by saying, “This is my opinion. It’s your job.” You know, I like to think I’m a relatively hands-off manager, and I like to put the right people in the job and let them do their job. If they’re not doing that, then I should move them out. But while they are there, I have confidence in their decision-making ability and I make comments with a relatively light touch.

Ryssdal: This is probably like asking a 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 sons’ high school football team. That’s my favorite team.

Ryssdal: There is a case to be made that ESPN is so all-encompassing that it can sort of dictate the agenda for the rest of the sports business. Do you buy that?

Bodenheimer: No, I don’t buy that at all. If you look at some of the players that we’re dealing with, you’re talking about very powerful organizations yourselves. So between that and the competition we have, I really don’t buy that. We’re a very competitive environment, and we’ve got to basically continue to manage this company in a way that helps us continue to do what we’ve been doing. But it’s not on automatic pilot, and we’re not dictating anything to anybody.

Ryssdal: So what’s going to cause you to lose your edge then? What’s the worse case?

Bodenheimer: It’s like all companies. If you get self-satisfied, you get complacent. You think you have all the right answers, you get caught up in your own headlines, that’s a bad day for you. And we don’t do that here. And I consider that one of my primary jobs to make sure that never occurs.

Ryssdal: We talked a little bit about digital and the Internet and broadband. Can you see a day when the Internet replaces television, if for you?

Bodenheimer: “I don’t know” is the answer. But if that day comes, that day is a long way off. I think television … You know, many people … it gets misreported and bandied about. Television viewership is increasing despite the Internet, despite video games, despite all of the new things that consumers have to play with and consume their time. Television viewership is growing. The whole pie is growing, which is one of the reasons why the company is continuing to grow. So I don’t see television surpassed by the Internet anytime soon.

Ryssdal: What was it about ESPN that changed the way sports is covered because, fundamentally, that’s what you guys did?

Bodenheimer: Well, for one thing the venerable highlight package, which we’ve made. Really, Sports Center, which was the very first program on ESPN back on September 7, 1979, is really the backbone of the company. It’s our responsibility to chronicle the day’s events in sports through highlight packages, and that’s what you may have seen walking into the studio today. So certainly the life, the importance, the significance of the sports highlight has changed over 30 years. And ESPN has had something to do with that. Certainly the sophistication that we are all trying to produce sports and, again, our legacy here is ABC Sports. And Roone Arledge and what he and all his peers built at ABC, and my boss, Bob Eiger, worked at ABC Sports. I mean, they were on the cutting edge of finding new ways to produce events, whether it was Monday Night Football or the Olympics for all those years. So I think we’ve helped carry that ball forward a bit in trying our best to add new technology. For example, do you ever want to watch a football game again without knowing where the first down line is? So things like that, I think, are accelerating in our sports television business, and I think the fans will benefit from that.

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

Bodenheimer: My pleasure.

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