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Volume 21 No. 43
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Forty Under 40 Hall of Fame: Justin Connolly


ESPN IMAGES

Justin 
Connolly

Age: 39
Company: ESPN
Title: Senior vice president, college networks
Where born: Boston
Education: Harvard University (A.B.), Harvard Business School (MBA)
Family: Wife, Jessica; daughters, Carthan (7) and Brynn (5); sons, Drew (3) and Jack (2)

Favorite way to unwind: See a good movie.
Cause supported: The V Foundation.
Most thrilling/adventurous thing I’ve ever done: Stand on a wooden railroad bridge with my wife and four kids while a train passes underneath at full speed.
Person in the industry I'd most like to meet: Bill Belichick.
If I could change jobs with anyone for a day, it would be: Hanley Ramirez. I would love the opportunity to play left field in Fenway.
My fellow Forty Under 40 class members would be surprised to know that I: Cried every time I lost a Little League game. (Hard to admit even 25+ years later.).

At the beginning of March, SEC Network went live to football workouts from Auburn University. Under the watchful gaze of coaches and scouts from every NFL team, about 20 Auburn football players staged a mini-combine, running drills and displaying their talents.

The idea to go live from Auburn’s pro day came just the week before, when Auburn officials approached Justin Connolly, the head of SEC Network. For Connolly, Auburn’s pitch showed how far the network has come since it launched in August.

“Having invested a lot of time over the past two years to build that trust and that relationship, these opportunities start to bubble up to us more and more frequently,” he said.

Connolly first made the Forty Under 40 list in 2011, as a member of ESPN’s affiliate sales team. During that phase of his career, he would spend weeks locked in conference rooms with cable and satellite operators, negotiating contract details. Two years ago, he moved away from the affiliate group to launch SEC Network, and it was in part for his early work in developing the channel that he was recognized in the annual list again last year. His recognition this year, following the channel’s launch, puts him in the Forty Under 40 Hall of Fame, as a three-time honoree.

In making the transition from his earlier work at ESPN, he had to develop a new skill set.

{podcast}

SBJ Podcast:
Forty Under 40 editor Mark Mensheha and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss this year's class, some of the more interesting stories in it and how the selection process works.

“On affiliate, you spend a lot of time in discussions and conversations trying to solve issues; then you get in a compressed window where the pace all of a sudden picks up and you’re in a lock-down mode,” Connolly said. “Decision-making is more frequent now, but it’s spread out over the course of a full week, not just one week at the end of the month.”

Under Connolly’s direction, SEC Network has been a rousing success. When the network launched in August, it did so with nearly full distribution, something that’s unheard of in the cable industry these days.

“The success of SEC Network is undoubtedly a team effort, but every team has a captain, and every success story has a champion,” said ESPN President John Skipper. “Justin Connolly has been that and more for our newest network.”

Said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive: “Justin proved to be the perfect leader at the right time for the launch of the SEC Network.”

Under Connolly’s leadership, the network has combined well-known on-air talent (Brent Musburger, Paul Finebaum and Tim Tebow) with coverage of smaller sports from smaller schools.

“We cover 14 schools and the 21 varsity sports that encompass the entire SEC,” Connolly said. “We have to try to answer to the stakeholders that live across each one of those campuses and at the conference office in Birmingham.”

Still, it’s live games that really resonate, particularly live football games. Connolly experienced the passion around his channel firsthand during SEC Network’s season-opening Texas A&M-South Carolina game, when crowds gathered around its “SEC Nation presented by AT&T” set, modeled off ESPN’s popular “College GameDay.” Following that opening weekend of football, Connolly allowed himself to take a deep breath and enjoy the network’s early success.

“It was really the first full week of September where there was a relief and an acknowledgement that we built something really great here,” he said. “That feeling doesn’t last long because we pretty quickly get into how to make it better.”

— John Ourand