SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40
Published November 10, 2003
It's no surprise that you'll find sports memorabilia in Russell Wolff's office. When growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and then the suburb of Larchmont, his family had season tickets to the Knicks, Rangers, Mets and Yankees. While only a junior in high school, he went to Calgary to work for ABC Radio during the Olympics.
The only surprise is the kind of sports memorabilia.
There are three cricket bats and a photo of him playing that strange game in the backyard of an Indian temple. And Wolff lists attending the Cricket World Cup in 1999 as one of the most exciting moments of his career.
That's what a few years overseas and the responsibility of running all of ESPN International will do to you.
Wolff was indoctrinated into the world of international sports in a hurry, when he was sent to Hong Kong to run a new Pacific Rim office for ESPN in 1997. Before that he'd been in affiliate sales at the most American of American cable networks, MTV.
He spent a year in Hong Kong and then went to Singapore to head up programming for Star, a joint venture between Fox and ESPN that serves the Asia Pacific region.
His job was to identify and procure content that would be of interest to each of the nations served by Star.
"Being in programming, you had to quickly come to terms with local sports tastes," he said. "I had to learn rugby, cricket, Formula One. At the same time, doing business across different cultures requires a bit of sensitivity and sometimes finesse."
That year, 1998, he attended his first cricket match in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The event lasted eight hours, including the tea breaks that are customary in the sport. "It was a real wake-up call that I wasn't just putting baseball, basketball and football to air," he said.
After three years in Singapore, Wolff was brought home by ESPN to be the second-in-command of the entire international business. His direct responsibilities included operations in every region in the Eastern Hemisphere, and marketing and programming for the entire world.
In 2002, he was put in charge of it all.
Reporting directly to ESPN President George Bodenheimer, Wolff now oversees 24 networks (seven wholly owned networks that reach 18 million households; 17 jointly owned networks that reach 176 million).
In all, ESPN International divisions have 1,451 employees, with 491 being from wholly owned entities that report to Wolff.
It's not just a large operation, but a complex one. The domain is 147 countries with programming in 10 languages. And the economies of many of those countries are highly volatile.
Wolff must pay attention to currency fluctuations, leadership changes and local economic health on a country-by-country basis, along with what's happening on the local sports scene.
"Based on the time Russell has spent both here and overseas, he's developed just a real comprehensive understanding of not just the sports television business but the broader business," said Ken Yaffe, group vice president of NHL International. "He's been a very significant help to us in structuring a number of our international television deals and providing input on a strategy for marketing the game outside of North America."
Whether it's putting on the Stanley Cup Finals in Australia or a local soccer team in Bolivia, Wolff has a guiding philosophy.
"Part of what I have told everyone is that we should learn to be as local as we can," he said. "You have to understand the market and understand the sports if you're going to be respected in the country. It's a willingness to open your mind and try to forget you're American sometimes."
In a way, Wolff is doing that right here at home through the launch of ESPN Deportes, a Spanish-language network that falls under his direction. The channel will have its own version of "SportsCenter" and pluck programming from both the U.S. ESPN and the Latin American versions, while also doing some original content.
"I've always wanted to oversee a network," Wolff said. "But I never envisioned I'd get to oversee this many."