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Volume 25 No. 155
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George Bodenheimer Reflects His 30-Plus Years Working At ESPN

Speaking at the ’18 Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, ESPN Exec Chair George Bodenheimer focused on how he helped build and instill corporate culture at the all-sports network, where he worked for more than 30 years. “Mission is really important, regardless of your organization,” Bodenheimer said. “It’s the North Star for your employees; why you come to work every day. In ESPN’s case, it was to serve sports fans. That was the prism within which we put every business proposal. That’s critical for any organization.” Bodenheimer offered an example of how that culture influenced big decisions. In the formative days of HDTV, some in ESPN senior management wanted to delay adoption because of competing HD formats and other concerns. The simple solution was that having a better (HD) picture served sports fans. Accordingly, “we probably had a several-year advantage on our competition by launching high-definition first,” Bodenheimer said. “There was no business model and the whole industry was in a quandary. But ESPN decided to move, solely based on that mission statement. It was a better experience for fans.”

KNOWING WHAT IS IMPORTANT: Bodenheimer recalled his first corporate-wide town hall meeting after becoming president at ESPN. He had prepped for hours on business issues and was ready to discuss topics as arcane as subscriber growth in India. The employees, though, asked about the use of styrofoam cups in the cafeteria, insufficient lighting in parking lots, expanding the hours of the company workout center and the need for on-site day care. “That was one of my most valuable corporate comeuppance lessons,” Bodenheimer said. “It taught me on my very first week as president to pay attention to what’s important to your people. You better have all the business qualifications and be a good negotiator. Beyond that, you’d better pay attention to what’s important to your people. Show your people you care about them and that’s when they will go through walls for you.”

TOUGHER THAN THE REST: Asked to name the toughest negotiators during his years, Bodenheimer cited two former commissioners: the NBA’s David Stern and the PGA Tour's Tim Finchem. “I never saw anybody more prepared (than Stern),” Bodenheimer said. “He was tenacious. Negotiations are all about leverage. When you have it, you need to leave a little bit on the table. When you don’t, you make the best deal you can.”

QUICK HITS:

  • On the role of colleges in ESPN’s growth: “If it wasn’t for the contract that (ESPN founder) Bill Rasmussen did with (former NCAA Executive Director) Walter Byers, there may not have been an ESPN. There was no live college football, but it was for 400 to 500 events a year. College sports were our backbone.”
  • On the changing media landscape: “The challenges today are significant. Distribution is down; costs are up. Viewing habits are changing and new competitors have plenty of money. But there’s never been a better time to be a sports fan. If you think about what you have access to on whatever device you want, its all there. To me, that looks like an opportunity to serve fans.”
  • On looking everywhere for ideas: “One of my favorite expressions from 13 years as president was, ‘Don’t wait for a memo from the corner office.’ My ideas are no better than any of yours at any level of the company. I wanted ideas from every level.”
  • On taking risks: “You could make a mistake, as long as it was an honest mistake. That was one of the most powerful pieces of advice I ever got. I want you to make mistakes. If you’re not trying to launch a 3D network, a consumer products business or a sports bar with the most expensive real estate in the world (NYC), you aren’t trying hard enough. Those were all mistakes, but they were honest mistakes. You don’t kill people who make mistakes. You encourage them. That’s a big part of what culture means to me.”
  • On the failure of mobile ESPN in '06: “One of the things I’m proudest of is how fast we killed that business. Fast forward 20 years later, the ESPN app is No. 1 in sports. That first-inning mistake was a foundation.”