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

Russell Wolff



The career development office at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business asked Russell Wolff to address its new students on the second day of classes. The title it gave for his 30-minute pep talk: “Dream Job.”

Russell Wolff
• Age: 37
• Titles: Executive vice president and managing director
• Company: ESPN International
• Education: B.A., Dartmouth College, 1989; MBA, Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth, 1994
• Family: Wife, Patty; sons Michael, 3, and Spencer, 1
• Career: Account executive at Leo Burnett ad agency 1989-1992; spent 1994-1997 at MTV Networks in affiliate sales; moved to Hong Kong to head ESPN's office in 1997; joined ESPN Star Sports in Singapore as head of programming the next year; returned to the United States in 2000 as senior vice president of ESPN International; promoted to managing director in 2002; promoted to executive vice president in December
• Last vacation: Disney World, just before the Super Bowl
• Last book read: "In Retrospect" by Robert McNamara
• Last movie seen: "Meet the Fockers"
• Fantasy job: Director of athletics at Dartmouth College
• Business advice: Perception is reality.
To his colleagues at ESPN, “Dream Job” is the name of a show on which amateurs compete to be on-air sports personalities. But to the faculty at Wolff’s alma mater, a job overseeing 30 sports networks that reach 194 countries is right up there with astronaut or Hollywood director in the category of ultimate ways to earn a living.

A direct report to ESPN President and CEO George Bodenheimer, Wolff is much like a CEO himself, overseeing an entire arm of ESPN and networks that collectively reach 170 million homes worldwide and have 1,500 employees. All of the various disciplines involved in running a cable network — programming, advertising sales, affiliate relations, production — fall under Wolff.

His reach extends to every continent other than Antarctica. Whether it’s with cricket in India or soccer in Latin America, ESPN International aims to be everyone’s hometown sports network, even in towns most Americans would have difficulty pronouncing.

Last year Wolff oversaw the launch of ESPN Deportes, a domestic Spanish-language channel, and new versions of “SportsCenter” out of Mexico City and Hong Kong. Also launched, through joint ventures and wholly owned subsidiaries, were a French-language sports news channel in Quebec, and versions of ESPN Classic in Scandinavia and Germany.

ESPN International also created a version of ESPN The Magazine in China. It may not come as a shock that Yao Ming was on the cover of the first issue.

The challenge of Wolff’s job is to keep track of so many different things at once, when politics and business climates change constantly on a country-by-country basis.

“At the beginning of the year you write a budget,” Wolff said, “and then you watch it change. Whether it’s currency devaluation in Argentina or a new administration in India that leads to a change in the regulatory environment, there are always things happening.”

Then there are smaller decisions that require sensitivity to the disparate cultures and people ESPN reaches. For instance, when “SportsCenter” was filmed on location at a U.S. military base in Kuwait, Wolff said he was unsure how well that would be received in Middle Eastern countries that receive the U.S. “SportsCenter” on their version of ESPN. Wolff consulted with individual affiliates in the area, and luckily they all said they would welcome it.

Wolff’s office in New York bears evidence of his world travels — he spends about 60 percent of his time on the road — and his love of American sports. LeRoy Neiman prints center two walls. There are also cricket bats; collector pin sets from UEFA, the top European soccer circuit; and a framed ticket from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey gold-medal game.

Wolff is both an avid hockey fan and player, suiting up once a week near his home in the New York suburb of Westchester.

He was hired by ESPN in 1997, after several years in affiliate sales with MTV, to reopen a Hong Kong office. His wife, Patty, whom he met at Dartmouth and who has worked for PepsiCo ever since, joined Wolff in Hong Kong and then Singapore. She now is the head of international marketing for PepsiCo’s non-carbonated beverage division, which includes Gatorade and Aquafina.

Wolff’s tenure at ESPN included a stint with ESPN Star Sports, a joint venture between ESPN and News Corp. that runs several sports networks in the Far East. He returned to the United States and ESPN proper in 2000.

Wolff said that until he gets tired of all the traveling — which hasn’t happened yet — he can’t think of anything he’d rather do. For him, heading ESPN International is indeed a dream job.

Back to 2005 Forty Under 40 list.

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