SBJ/March 20 - 26, 2006/Forty Under 40

Russell Wolff


By Andy Bernstein      
Staff writer

Russell Wolff
Age: 38
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, 4, and Spencer, 2
Career: Account executive at Leo Burnett ad agency from 1989-1992; worked in affiliate sales at MTV Networks from 1994-1997; moved to Hong Kong to work for ESPN from 1997-1998; moved to Singapore to work for ESPN STAR Sports from 1998-2000; was senior VP of ESPN International from 2000-2002; promoted to senior VP and managing director in 2002; promoted again to executive vice president in December 2004.
Last vacation: Nantucket
Last book read: "The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf" by Ron Rapoport
Last movie seen: "Capote"
Pet peeve: Tardiness
Greatest achievement: Managing a dual-career family (Patty is a vice president of consumer strategy at PepsiCo)
Greatest disappointment: Losing my parents
Fantasy job: Director of athletics at Dartmouth
Executive most admired: My wife, Patty Wolff
Business advice: Balanced employees make great employees.

There are frequent fliers. Then there are platinum Admiral Club super frequent fliers. And then there's Russell Wolff.

As the head of ESPN International, which includes 29 networks reaching 194 countries, Wolff spends about two-thirds of his time out of his New York office, and most of that is spent overseas.

It's the sort of job that many executives will use as a launching pad, with the goal of getting a high-level job stateside. But Wolff has been on the international circuit ever since joining ESPN to work out of its Hong Kong office in 1997, and he hasn't tired of it yet.

"First, you have to love where you're going, and I do," said Wolff, of how he's endured all the travel. "I love to spend time in Argentina, Thailand, Australia, India. The more time I spend in China the more I enjoy it."

Not that Wolff always gets to take in the sights.

As one of six direct reports to ESPN President George Bodenheimer, he carries enormous responsibility and has more than 1,400 employees under his charge.

No one in the company other than Bodenheimer has a more diverse set of responsibilities. Wolff oversees every aspect of the international business, from programming to advertising to affiliate relations. He's also spent much of the last year working on the wireless side of things, preparing to launch various ESPN mobile publishing products around the world.

With this comes a unique perspective on what the United States symbolizes in an increasingly fractured world, and the role sports play as an outlet for national passions, and sometimes international unity.

He remembers a cricket match between India and Pakistan called "The Friendship Cup" that had to be played in Toronto because the hostility between the countries made it impossible for either to host it. ESPN made a concerted effort to support the event and its underlying message of peace by televising it around the world. "Today," Wolff said, "they play each other at home."

When you're in that many places, world tragedies strike closer to home, too.

Phuket, the Thailand beach resort that was among the hardest hit during the 2004 tsunami, was the home of the first International X Games in 1999. Wanting to do something on top of the $10 million that parent company Walt Disney donated in relief, ESPN International staged a special X Games event in Bangkok last year, raising more than $50,000 that went directly to victims of the earthquake and tidal wave.

"He believes in having an ongoing business relationship, so there's always the freedom to work out any small things that come up. I think that's very positive."

Charles White, NFL vice president of international media

"He runs a very diverse business across many platforms and many countries, and it takes a very dynamic person who is tireless and constantly traveling to run a business like that."

Ken Yaffe, senior vice president and managing director, NHL International

"He has incredible relationships with the U.S. properties as well as the international markets. [When I got to MLS we] had some individual deals and pulled them all back and farmed them out to ESPN International because I know Russell and I trust Russell and know they'll do a good job."

Doug Quinn, president, Soccer United Marketing

Wolff said that as an American company, ESPN plays against the backdrop of how people around the world feel about the United States. The goal is largely to transcend that and be seen as a hometown player.

"In some places we certainly act as a bridge between different worlds where we're bringing them American sports," he said. "But in many places, we're clearly established as a local broadcaster."

He noted the nine different versions of "SportsCenter" outside the United States that lead with news of soccer and rugby, and might go weeks without mentioning the NFL.

When his colleagues at ESPN are fretting over the $1.1 billion annual tab for "Monday Night Football," Wolff puts equal attention into the UEFA Champions League deal that extends to three regions, or cable rights to the FIFA World Cup that ESPN boasts in Brazil.

"We want to have the same relationship with sports fans in each country as we do here," he said. "That's the gold standard we strive for."

The only way to keep such a vast business running smoothly is to be hands-on, visiting offices, meeting with international governing bodies and rights holders around the world. It demands a dizzying pace that might chew up and spit out most. But Wolff manages to do it in a dual-career family — his wife, Patty, is vice president of consumer strategy at PepsiCo — and still plays hockey once a week.

He has learned a few coping tricks along the way, one being to embrace jet lag.

"I don't try to force it. If you can't sleep, you can't sleep. You get up, you read, you work, you make some phone calls," he said. "I have a theory that no matter what time it is of the day, there's a productive phone call to be made somewhere in the world."

People who've held similar jobs marvel at Wolff's ability to cope.

"He's continued to be an international road warrior," said Doug Quinn, the former head of NFL International and now president of Soccer United Marketing. "It's something I'm personally not envious of, but something I admire."

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