Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 17
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

ESPN ignores recent noise

Network has show of stability in Atlanta for title game led by Bodenheimer

ESPN interim President George Bodenheimer was a reassuring presence for the company in Atlanta.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
A few hours before the College Football Playoff championship, ESPN’s George Bodenheimer emerged from a tunnel in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and walked the sideline nearest Alabama’s bench. Surrounded by top ESPN executives and assorted well-wishers, Bodenheimer spent his time on the sideline shaking hands and re-acquainting himself with familiar faces.

Bodenheimer’s return to the field, both literally and figuratively, projected an aura of calm and stability for a network that has not experienced calm and stability for weeks.

The legendarily well-liked media titan, who stepped down as network president in 2011, returned as ESPN’s interim president last month following John Skipper’s shocking resignation. Skipper’s stunning exit and revelation that he suffered from a substance abuse problem flooded ESPN’s headquarters with angst during the network’s busiest period of the year.

First Look podcast, with an in-depth discussion of the CFP in Atlanta:

No one knows who will be ESPN’s next president. Nobody from ESPN has even been contacted about applying for the position yet. Even with that uncertainty, the mantra among both ESPN executives and staffers has been to keep their heads down and shut out all of the outside noise around Disney’s search for a new president.

“It’s business as usual for us,” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s senior vice president of event and studio production. “We have a plan, and we’re doing what we’re doing. We’re doing our jobs at a super busy time. … We have decisions to make, and we’re making decisions. None of that changes.”

Bodenheimer’s appearance at the Jan. 8 championship game reflected the state of change in the surrounding media and marketing world during the CFP weekend in Atlanta — college football’s version of the Super Bowl. Industry insiders spent the days preceding the game buzzing not only about the upheaval at ESPN but also the progression of the landmark merger between Learfield and IMG College (see related story).

BODENHEIMER
At ESPN, Bodenheimer’s steady influence and reassuring presence already has been felt by the rank-and-file and has helped keep the network on track as it navigates through a period of college football postseason, college basketball regular season, an NFL playoff game, NBA regular season and Top Rank boxing. It marks the busiest time of year for the network.

That focus was evident by ESPN’s overwhelming presence in Atlanta, which demonstrates how important the CFP has become to the company.

This year, ESPN redirected some of its promotional money from Super Bowl week to the CFP. It canceled its annual Super Bowl party, typically held the Friday before the game, in favor of a Saturday night CFP party in Atlanta. It hired Kendrick Lamar as the college game’s halftime performer, mimicking the Super Bowl’s strategy of using a popular music act during halftime. All of the network’s top executives traveled to Atlanta for the game.

By comparison, ESPN said it plans to cut back on travel to Minneapolis this year. For example, many ESPN Radio shows will not travel to the Super Bowl site to produce their shows.

And it was Bodenheimer, just weeks ago far removed from the sports business, who was ESPN’s face at the event.

Looking fit and relaxed, and nattily dressed in a blue suit, Bodenheimer seemed almost in awe as he surveyed the scene at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When he left ESPN nearly seven years ago, a college football playoff was merely a topic for debate, not a $700 million-a-year property across multiple bowls.

During Bodenheimer’s time as ESPN’s president from 1998 to 2011, ESPN grew to become a powerful sports media brand. But Bodenheimer said even he was blown away by ESPN’s all-encompassing presence at the CFP championship game.

“This is really incredible,” he said, looking into the stadium’s upper deck.

Bodenheimer wore a smile as he toured the sidelines flanked by top network executives. Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president for programming and scheduling; Ed Durso, ESPN’s executive vice president of administration; and Druley joined Bodenheimer as he surveyed the scene where Alabama would later win a thrilling overtime victory over Georgia.

As Bodenheimer thought back to college football’s championship the last time he was in charge, he reminisced about what was then the BCS championship in 2011 when Auburn defeated Oregon, a game that still stands as the show that commanded the biggest audience in cable TV history.

But ESPN’s presence at that game, which seemed huge at the time, was much smaller than it was at the CFP title game.

As he spoke, Bodenheimer stood next to the SEC Network pregame set, across the field from the ESPN pregame set, and a pitching wedge away from ESPN2’s pregame set.

“This is our Super Bowl,” Bodenheimer said. “This is as big as anything we do.”

ESPN devoted 20 feeds to covering the game as part of its “Megacast” offering. It had more than 100 cameras in the stadium to document the action, including cameras for the studio shows.

“This is the biggest day of production for our company,” Druley said.

A fact not lost on Bodenheimer as he, once again, walked the sidelines for ESPN.