SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

ESPN executive reels in the big ones

Last summer in Nantucket, Michael Rooney caught a 30-pound striped bass with a fly rod. He released the fish but was so proud, he said, that he almost persuaded his wife to use the fish instead of the kids as their Christmas card photo.

It's a nice story, but seemingly not all that relevant to Rooney's job as senior vice president of ESPN The Magazine. There, his ad sales background matters more as he strives to build the magazine's brand with advertisers. The enthusiasm in his voice as he tells the story, however, suddenly matters a great deal. This month, ESPN Inc. added another title to Rooney's folder, making him general manager of the company's new initiative, ESPN Outdoors.

"There's an appetite for outdoor [information]," Rooney said. "It's a completely different audience for us, but it is worth our while to really focus on this."

Rooney will oversee the Great Outdoor Games, ESPN2's outdoor programming and newly acquired B.A.S.S., the fishing organization that oversees tournaments, distributes television shows and publishes magazines.

That's quite a change for a man who fell into ad sales back in the 1970s when he married the boss's daughter and joined the family business at J. Paulsen Inc.

Rooney, who was publisher at the 1998 launch of ESPN The Magazine, will retain his role there. "They just pile it on," he said with a laugh, adding that some of his responsibilities will be divided among other senior staffers. "Time will tell how much time I spend on the magazine."

Rooney, 47, said he knows nothing about event and television planning and will focus more on big-picture strategy. "We have very good people," he said. "I'll be learning from them. I build pretty good teams."

Rooney said he won't become an expert, but in six months he expects to "have a very good understanding" of his new fields. "I'll just immerse myself," he said, attending events, watching television and sitting in on meetings and picking his colleagues' brains.

"He's a leader and a listener," said George McNeilly, director of communications for B.A.S.S., adding that everyone who has met Rooney instantly likes him. "It's a rare and genuine quality when you still seek out the opinions of those who report to you."

But from magazines to programs to tournaments, Rooney's love of outdoor sports will help. "I understand the needs of the outdoorsman," Rooney said. His credentials include a stint as publisher of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.

"He's an avid outdoorsman," McNeilly said. "You can tell that really quickly."

Stuart Miller is a writer in New York.

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