Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 2
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Ideas from Bodenheimer; ‘The Doctor’ is calling you

A couple of takeaways from the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily Intersport Activation Summit that was recently held in Chicago where, not surprisingly, the most commonly used buzzwords over the two-day conference were authentic, organic, amplification and, of course, experience.

> I’ve always been a big fan of ESPN Executive Chairman George Bodenheimer and he sat for a fun interview with Intersport’s chair and his longtime friend, Charlie Besser. Some of the highlights I jotted down were his takes on leadership, hiring and ESPN’s recent rights deals.

Bodenheimer, on leadership: “Passion is probably at the top of the list [of traits]. All of the great leaders are passionate about their company and their product. They want to get it right, and 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, and it takes work to learn. 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.” I liked George’s perspective on “passion” — I get frustrated and fail to understand passivity and timidity. The other point that resonated with me was constantly learning. As a 44-year-old creature of habit, I find myself challenged — and at times intimidated — by keeping up with the dizzying array of new and social media technologies. George’s words motivate me to work at staying current.

Bodenheimer, on hiring great employees: “Again, 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. … You know fairly quickly if you made a bad hire, and if you do, act quick. Acting quickly is best for both parties.”

He also talked about making mistakes, saying, “It is OK 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.” I liked this point too, because it reflected back to timidity: Pushing and taking risks and chances isn’t intuitive for many of us, and while it opens the door for possible mistakes, it’s also a path to progress.

Bodenheimer was relaxed and reflective in telling a story I hadn’t heard before, about the failure of the Mobile ESPN phone in 2006: “I always get it 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. … 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.”

The interview covered its fair share of ESPN’s business, and the fascinating aspect to me recently has been the long-term deals that the network has carved out. Just take a look: a 20-year deal for an SEC network, 15 years with the ACC, 12 years for BCS, eight years for “Monday Night Football,” and the more recent 11-year deal for the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. “We always say to ourselves, you’re never going to go wrong with world class programming,” Bodenheimer said. “It’s expensive, but … 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.” Big events “aren’t going anywhere.”
Signing these long-term deals has been one of the biggest media stories of the last year. In a fragmented media landscape, with cord-cutting, calls for a la carte in Washington, and serious and significant new competition, ESPN has secured some of the most popular programming well into the next decade.

> Taco Bell President Brian Niccol made his first public remarks since being named president of the brand in mid-May and kicked off the summit by stressing the importance of authenticity and being culturally relevant. Here are some quick hits from his well-received remarks that you may find interesting:

On today’s advertising and marketing: “A lot of the marketing that is going on right now is just flat-out bad. Bad and antiquated. We have a real tendency to take a pendulum and swing it one way or the other. Very rarely do we operate in the space where we say, ‘You know what, I’m going to treat this like a family member. I’m going to treat this in such a way that people want to talk about it again and again and again.’ As opposed to just logo-slapping or making a bad ad and bad marketing that people will not want to see again. You see some ads today and it actually hurts.”

He also stressed a clarity of content at Taco Bell: “We’ve gone from activating ‘marks’ to activating the experience, because that way, you create memories and connections. … We want to move our brand from ‘food as fuel’ to ‘food as an experience.’” His goal is to create a “Purple Nation” of Taco Bell evangelists, much like today’s sports fan groups, “If we do that, that is when I know we’ve turned the corner.”
Finally, engagement: “Who cares about the number of followers you have? Do they actually engage with you, or tell stories or retweet about your brand?” Putting the brand in the middle of the “culture of people” is a focus for him. “Brands need to organically be part of people’s culture or part of the way people talk. You need to somehow influence the way people talk and connect.”

> THE DOCTOR: Please catch the NBA TV special premiering this week on the life of Julius Erving. Along with Bjorn Borg, it was The Doctor who consumed my time, energy and attention among the athletes I admired growing up. My uncle, Dr. James Ralph, was the sports team doctor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and began telling our family stories of this talented and special young man who played at UMass and was in the ABA. Growing up in rural Vermont, access to ABA games was, needless to say, limited. But when Dr. J was traded/sold to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976, his special talents shifted to a national platform. Graceful, charismatic, classy and cool, to me, Erving represented it all. Even his regal name, Julius Erving, placed him in a pantheon above everyone else. He didn’t always win, and that made his pursuit of an NBA championship one of the great story lines of the league in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I made my dad drive hours from Vermont to the awesome Boston Garden to overpay for obstructed-view seats or standing-room so we could see some of the classic 76ers-Celtics tilts of that era, and he treated me to a special weekend in Philadelphia so we could see one of The Doctor’s final seasons playing in the old Spectrum. Erving has had his post-career challenges, struggles and sadness, and while he’s always been a close member of the NBA family, it’s great to see him center stage during the league’s biggest event and the subject of a documentary that will show millions why this man was so special to a generation. As Magic Johnson so eloquently puts it in the trailer for the documentary, “When greatness meets class, that’s what God created in Dr. J.”

> A WEEK IN TUSCANY: Finally, my six siblings and I are taking my parents to Italy for a week at the end of the month, staying about 20 minutes outside of Siena in Tuscany in the small village of Montaperti. If any of you have suggestions for sites, towns or villages to hit, or most importantly, restaurants not to miss, shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at