Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 42
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Forty Under 40

A nor’easter was barreling down in February, about to dump 3 feet of snow in and around ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters.

Preparations for what ESPN would put on air with a skeleton crew were developed by John Papa, the executive responsible for figuring out when and where to program on all of ESPN’s television channels and broadband platforms.

“People couldn’t get into work,” said Papa, ESPN’s vice president of program planning and acquisitions. “We had to start making programming decisions on the fly based on how many people we had in Bristol.”

ESPN wound up canceling two shows — “NBA Tonight” and “Highlight Express” — because crews could not make it into the studio. Papa said he also kept a keen focus on the Knicks-Clippers NBA game that was going to be played in New York’s Madison Square Garden. If the game would have been canceled — it went on, as scheduled — Papa would have had to come up with more than two hours’ worth of replacement programming for ABC on the fly.

That was just one day, but it illustrates the Rubik’s Cube of a job that Papa has in developing the on-air schedules around ESPN’s channels.

“It’s a gigantic puzzle that’s never completed,” he said.

And Papa’s role doesn’t end there. Over the past several years, he has helped negotiate media-rights deals. He was part of ESPN’s negotiating team that picked up Wimbledon rights in 2011 and the team that renewed MLB rights last year.

“John’s very bright and hardworking, with a wealth of programming experience, including scheduling, acquisitions, development — you name it,” said Papa’s former boss, David Berson, who now is the executive vice president of CBS Sports and president of CBS Sports Network. “Above all, he’s extremely collaborative and well-liked by everyone he works with internally and across the industry.”

— John Ourand

Age: 39
Title: Vice president, program planning and acquisitions
Education: B.A., communications, University of Hartford; master’s in sports management, University of Connecticut
Family: Wife, Tracy; children Katie (6) and Ryan (4)
Career: Entire career at ESPN (more than 16 years). First joined in June 1996 as a researcher for ESPN International’s production department; subsequent positions included senior director, international programming, and vice president, programming and acquisitions for ESPN Classic and ESPNews; named vice president, strategic program planning at ESPN in June 2007, with additional responsibilities added since.
First Job: Bagger at Stop & Shop
How do you strike a work-life balance? While the business is 24/7 for me, making sure that it isn’t for my family.
Best business advice received: Take the job at ESPN after college. Grad school can wait.
Farthest traveled from U.S.: Australia
Reaction to Forty Under 40 Selection: Didn't see that coming.
Stress release: Running
Pet peeve: Negativity
Guilty pleasure: Finding a good TV series and spending hours getting caught up.
FANTASY JOB: Radio play-by-play announcer for the Boston Red Sox
Favorite movie line: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” (“The Godfather Part III”)