SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Forty Under 40

Mark Shapiro



There was a passing reference to Mark Shapiro in The Wall Street Journal last month. An excerpt from a book about the Walt Disney Co.’s dysfunctional upper management briefly mentioned him as the “rising star at ESPN” who was up for a job with ABC on the entertainment side last year.

Mark Shapiro
• Age: 34
• Title: Executive vice president, programming and production
• Company: ESPN
• Education: B.S., political science and communication, University of Iowa, 1992
• Family: Wife, Kim; sons Jack, 4, and Jeffery, 1
• Career: Interned at NBC in New York while in college; moved to Los Angeles to be assistant producer for David Michaels, Al Michaels' brother; moved to ESPN to become a production assistant on the "Jim Rome Show"; promoted to producer within six month; later was producer on the ESPN show "Up Close"; moved to Connecticut after being named head of production for the "SportsCentury" series in 1997; named vice president and general manager of ESPN Classic in January 2000; named senior vice president of programming in August 2001; added production responsibilities in September 2002; launched ESPN's first scripted drama, "Playmakers," in 2003
• Last book read: "DisneyWar" by James B. Stewart
• Last movie seen: "Ray"
• Greatest achievement: My two children
• Greatest disappointment: Steve Bartman
• Fantasy job: Novelist
• Executive most admired: Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch
• Business advice: Inspire commitment and demand accountability.
It was no secret then, reported in Variety and USA Today. And it’s still no secret that Shapiro may end up being a Hollywood hotshot some day.

But to understand Shapiro’s career path — to this point, and his next step — one has to understand the singular thing that drives him.

“I love stories,” he said. “Books, movies, drama, suspense. I’m a big fan of the narrative.”

And he loves to plunge his hands into the mixing bowl, to be not just the guy who green-lights projects, but the guy who molds and shapes them.

“Being hands-on with content and having constant creative freedom — that’s what keeps me here, keeps me attentive and challenged,” Shapiro said. “One day it’s negotiating with the NFL or MLB, the next day it’s trying to figure out how to reinvent ‘SportsCenter.’”

He throws himself into the minutiae that can be the difference between good television and great television. Turn on any of ESPN’s seven domestic channels and you’re probably seeing a piece of Shapiro without even knowing it. Maybe it’s the background decorations on the set of “Baseball Tonight,” or a racy piece of dialogue on “Tilt.”

Of ESPN’s 4,000 employees, 2,300 are in departments headed by the 34-year-old Shapiro. So you’d think he would just delegate seemingly trivial things.

But in planning meetings for the new show “ESPN Hollywood” last month, Shapiro was involved in every element, from picking the on-air talent and negotiating their contracts, to assembling 50 camera teams around the country, even to dropping the name of someone who would make a good stagehand.

This was squeezed in between negotiating sessions with the NFL, Major League Baseball and the Australian Open.

It’s a constant juggling act. But one of Shapiro’s defining qualities, said TWI senior vice president Bob Horowitz, is that when he gives someone his attention, he gives his complete attention. For five minutes or an hour or however long a call or meeting lasts, he will focus completely on the matter at hand and probably make a quick decision.

“He says no more often than he says yes. But I can’t recall a time he ever said no after waiting a week or two,” Horowitz said. “A lot of executives will say, ‘Can you send me something?’ because they’re afraid to say no, or they’re not sure of themselves. With Mark it’s boom — ‘No’ or ‘Yes, I want to do it.’”

Shapiro’s abrupt negotiating style is tough for some people to handle, especially for industry veterans 20 years his senior.

But ESPN President George Bodenheimer has put enormous trust in Shapiro and constantly added to his responsibilities. In 1997, at only 26, Shapiro was put in charge of ESPN Classic’s “SportsCentury” series. He was handed the reins to all of Classic at the age of 29. Next he was put in charge of the ESPN Original Entertainment project. Then came the most important step of all, as he leapfrogged some of the very executives who’d groomed him and was named ESPN’s head of programming in the summer of 2001, at age 31.

He was told to build ESPN’s lagging ratings. And he did, for three straight years. During that span he also was put in charge of all production.

The next challenges for Shapiro are more difficult to define. They’ll likely come not in giant heaps of new responsibility, but brick by brick.

He wants to develop a new nightly show for ESPN. He wants to break ESPN2 out of the shadow of the flagship network. The new channels, like ESPN Deportes and ESPNU, are blank canvasses to paint on.

But there isn’t a clear next step for Shapiro at ESPN, and that’s one of many reasons people speculate where he’ll end up next. His contract with ESPN has about 18 months left, and many think he’ll take on something even bigger when that is up, inside or outside the Walt Disney Co.

It’s a touchy subject, one he addresses diplomatically.

“I’m very loyal to ESPN, and I’m very happy here,” he said. “I’m grateful for the support and creative freedom I’ve gotten. Let the chips fall where they may. You have to be able to count on coming to work every day and being energized by what you do. Today, I can.”


“I have been in the industry for 20 years. I have met nearly everyone that is supposed to be the real deal or the total package, and I have never met anybody that puts it all together like this young guy. He’s just got it.”

Charlie Besser, CEO, Intersport

“He’s programming into the culture. He’s a younger guy and he gets what younger sports fans are looking for. That’s one of the things that’s caused ESPN to step up.”

Kevin O’Malley, sports television consultant

“He’s one of the sharpest minds in television that I know. We don’t always see eye to eye, but I respect what he’s done at a place many people thought had seen its best days.”

Lou Oppenheim, CEO, Headline Media Management Inc.

“What I think gets lost by some people is how effective a businessman he is. He knows what he wants in every negotiation. Knows what’s important to him and what’s not, which enables him to get to a deal very quickly. It’s not always the outcome we want, but we know where we stand with him.”

Adam Silver, president, NBA Entertainment

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