ESPN's Bodenheimer on leadership, sports rights and new competition

Photo by DAVID DUROCHIK
Bodenheimer: Competition is "not only good for our company, it’s good for all sports fans.”
ESPN Chairman George Bodenheimer sat down with Intersport CEO Charlie Besser for a one-on-one interview this morning at the 2013 Intersport Activation Summit. The two discussed a range of topics, from leadership to ESPN’s rights strategy to the new competition that the company faces from upstarts like Fox Sports 1. Here are some of the highlights:

On SportsCenter: “I consider SportsCenter the flagship, the backbone of ESPN. It’s been on the air literally from the first five minutes of our existence. SportsCenter itself is our biggest sub fan under the ESPN brand. We produce 18 to 20 live hours of SportsCenter a day, up from 2 to 3 when we first kicked off. It’s a lot harder to do that … than put out a press release saying you’re going to do that.”

On competition: “People all the time say, ‘You don’t have any competition.’ It took a long time for us to figure out why they felt that way. We had plenty of competition in television, radio, online and mobile, but none of the competitors had the breadth we had. But each one of those segments were terribly competitive. It will be more competitive now, and it’s not only good for our company, it’s good for all sports fans.”

On rights acquisitions: “We always say to ourselves, you’re never going to go wrong with world class programming. It’s expensive, but whether you’re talking Wimbledon, the Masters, the BCS, Monday Night Football, US Open tennis, US Open golf… that’s world-class products. We’re only as good as our event product and … these acquisitions set the foundation for the company for the next eight to 10 to 15 years. We feel we’re on very firm ground by virtue of the acquisition strategy we’ve employed. Fortunately, we have a business model where, knock on wood, we’ll be able to finance that.”

On the SEC Network: “It’s about as passionate as anything you can get in the world in terms of fan base. We obviously think there’s an opportunity to expand our relationship with the SEC. We’re bullish on it. We think the fans are going to want the product and enjoy the product.”On leadership: “Passion is probably at the top of the list (of traits for good leaders). All of the great leaders, whether you’re running Intersport, the SEC Conference, the Big 10 or the NFL, are passionate about their company and their product. People with passion over-deliver. There are so many examples of that throughout business and life. Beyond that, those folks are always curious, good listeners ... I like to use the term student-of-the-business. You’re always learning something new every day. I find them all to be curious about their business. There are various expertise people have in the various jobs they are in, but I really respect the people who want to learn about the areas they’re not expert in.”

On making mistakes: “It is okay to make a mistake, because if you don’t make a mistake you’re not out there trying hard enough. But it better be an honest mistake … and you better not make the same mistake over and over again.”

On the ESPN phone’s failure: “I always get put to me, ‘You were in charge of the ESPN phone and it was a huge failure.’ The first time I met Steve Jobs was a month after we launched the new phone. I was at a breakfast meeting. I’d never met him before. I went over and said, ‘Steve, I’m George Bodenheimer with ESPN.’ He said, ‘I hate your phone.’ …You know what? He was right. We really were on the wrong model, but what I credit ourselves with is that we got out of that model four months in. We got a lot of credit from Wall Street, a lot of credit from our employees. The point of the story is that we hired all these fantastic people (to make the phone product and) all we did was switch the model. We decided we’re not going to own the inventory, but we went full bore and now we have (the best phone content product in the business). It was a great lesson for all of us not to get too wedded to what we’re doing. It’s business. Get on the right model and move.”

On hiring great employees: “It’s really hard. If it was a science, I suppose it would be easier, but it’s an art. There’s no easy answer. At the risk of coming across with passion as the answer to every question, I do look for that. We have so many people who look to work for us. By the time they get to the couch, I’m looking for something. I’m looking for passion. I’m looking to see that you’ve done your homework and see what you’re going to bring to ESPN.”
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