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Volume 21 No. 14
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Lifetime Achievement Award: Michael Eisner

Sports entertainment ringmaster helps define the industry he loves

One of the most accomplished entertainment executives of all time, Michael Eisner is an unabashed sports fan. During an interview last month at The Topps Co.’s Manhattan office, Eisner sat in a conference room adorned with old Topps trading cards and pictures of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle as he reflected on a career that made him a household name and took him from ABC to Paramount to Disney. Eisner became most animated when the conversation turned to programming — both sports and entertainment.

 

It’s a side of Eisner, once described as one of the most feared executives in Hollywood, that many executives have seen.

Michael Eisner, Sports Business Awards 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree
Photo: patrick e. mccarthy

Current Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Bob Iger recalled Eisner’s weekly staff meetings in the mid-to-late 1990s, when Disney owned the Anaheim Angels and Anaheim Ducks. Those Monday meetings included all of Eisner’s direct reports — executives overseeing the theme parks, movie studios, TV channels and consumer products. 

“And he wanted to talk about potential trades the Angels were considering,” Iger said. “Michael is a consummate creative executive. He is driven by great creativity and storytelling. He has a passion for it. Nothing really seems to excite him more than that in business. I always viewed him as extremely unique in that regard because he was the CEO of a gigantic media company. But in his heart, he was creative.”

Eisner is best known for resurrecting Disney behind films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” He ran the company for 21 years, growing Disney’s theme park and consumer product businesses. 

He also became known as one of the first entertainment executives to see the value of sports. When Eisner bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1995, he correctly identified ESPN as the hidden gem of the deal.

“ESPN was the jewel that we didn’t talk about, but we knew,” he said.

Eisner is more than a businessman who dabbled in sports. His role in sports, as the owner of ESPN and two sports teams, brought about huge changes in the business. He strove to bring the showmanship of the entertainment world into sports. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recalled attending an introductory press conference in Anaheim when Eisner unveiled the team name: the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, named after the Disney movie. During the press conference, Eisner convinced the normally staid commissioner to blow a duck call.

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Michael Eisner

“To this day, people talk to me about that picture,” Bettman said. “I can’t remember exactly how he got me to do that.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred shared a similar story from 1996 soon after Disney bought the California Angels and later renamed them the Anaheim Angels. Eisner showed up at his first owners’ meeting not in a suit like the other owners, but dressed in full Angels gear like a rabid fan.

“That was probably one of the all-time great entrances into an owners’ meeting,” Manfred said. “He marched in, in his Anaheim jacket, and took hold of the room with his excitement and presence in terms of joining the group.”

George Bodenheimer recalled an Eisner request that came in 1998, soon after Bodenheimer was named president of ESPN. Eisner was traveling in Prague and asked Bodenheimer how he could watch a Ducks game that night.

“I remember spending half a day with Russell Wolff in international and Chuck Pagano, our engineer,” Bodenheimer said. “We were trying to figure out where he was and how we could get a satellite feed to him so that he could watch his Ducks game in a hotel in Prague. I believe we succeeded.

“On a lot of levels, that story tells you about Michael. He’s a fan, and he wants to see his products.”

• • • •

Fandom aside, Eisner cut business deals in sports because he saw intrinsic value in the market. He learned early in his tenure at ABC in the early 1970s just how big a business sports could be for television networks.

“The people that owned the television stations also owned the car dealerships, and all they cared about was football,” Eisner said. “They listened to you when you talked about the Osmond brothers, and they listened to you when you talked about ‘General Hospital.’ But they just wanted to make sure that ABC got the rights for NCAA football, so I knew from day one that sports was a driving factor.”

Barry Diller hired Eisner at ABC and put him in charge of programming and development, which was his position when the network launched “Monday Night Football” in 1970. Eisner remembered ABC Sports President Roone Arledge asking about whether he’d be interested in having the NFL anchor the network’s Monday nights. Faced with a prime-time lineup that was not competitive, Eisner responded, “You can have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”

Michael Eisner helped define the sports industry through his leadership of Disney, and by extension ESPN, and his team ownership.
Photo: patrick e. mccarthy

Eisner followed Diller to Paramount in 1976 to run the studio, where he oversaw a string of blockbuster movies, including “Saturday Night Fever,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” and TV shows like “Happy Days” and “Cheers.”

Eight years later, after he was passed over for Paramount’s top job, Eisner moved to Disney. He was faced with a similar “Monday Night Football” decision soon after Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC in ’95. At the time, ABC executives were pressuring Eisner to walk away from the NFL deal. But Eisner was conscious of the image that would be painted by having a new owner turn away from such a popular series.

“I was really wrestling with that,” he said. “I did not know that we could take the losses that were at ABC. I also did not know how to cancel it.”

Eisner ultimately decided to keep the series, thanks to an informal meeting with Bodenheimer in a hallway at Disney’s L.A. office.

“I hope you make the ‘Monday Night Football’ deal,” Bodenheimer told Eisner.

“I don’t know,” Eisner said. “We’re going to lose a lot of money, and everybody’s telling me not to do it. Strategic planning doesn’t want to do it. ABC management doesn’t want to do it.”

“If you do it, I will be able to get the second half of ‘Sunday Night Football’ exclusive for ESPN,” Bodenheimer said.

“I don’t know if that makes up for it.”

“If I get the second half of ‘Sunday Night Football,’ I can get a 20 percent increase in fees.”

“Twenty percent still doesn’t do it.”

“That’s 20 percent a year.”

“Wait, George. That’s $4 to $6 a month times 90 million homes. Why would they do that?”

“Comcast and the other cable operators think football will drive subscriptions.”

That convinced Eisner to renew “Monday Night Football,” a decision that helped accelerate ESPN from a $2 billion asset when Disney bought it to, according to some analysts, a $50 billion asset by 2014.

“It was a bold plan,” Bodenheimer said. “But Michael is a bold thinker. He encouraged us to think big about ESPN and ABC and Disney. That fits right in with his wheelhouse. He thought there was a tremendous amount of growth here.”

• • • •

Eisner’s entertainment background made him a unique owner in both Major League Baseball and the NHL. Under Eisner’s guidance, Disney founded the Ducks in 1993 and bought the Angels in 1996.

“Michael is very smart and very creative,” said MLB Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig. “It was a time when we were really reaching out and making changes. Michael was always very helpful.”

Known for being persuasive, Eisner (left) convinced usually staid NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (second from left) to blow a duck call when the Mighty Ducks were unveiled in 1993.
Photo: ap images

After agreeing to put an NHL expansion team in Anaheim, Eisner set out to bring some of his entertainment ethos to the league. He was filled with ideas that would make the game more free-flowing, advocating shootouts and trying to get rid of some of the more physical play that slowed down the game.

“He was focused on everything including the uniform and the right shades of colors,” Bettman recalled. “He wanted to do everything he could to make this a first-class entrant into the league.”

Eisner brought his experience running Disney’s theme parks and movie studios to the games, blurring the line between entertainment and sports. NHL games in Anaheim featured the “Darkwing Duck” cartoon character flying around the arena. On TV, the team would be featured on “Darkwing Duck” episodes. Eisner said the results showed up almost immediately.

“We had 17,184 seats, and we sold out because we did it on Sunday afternoons and made it a family event,” he said. “It all came to an end when we got to the playoffs and the people who ran the team wanted to be a more serious team. They said, ‘You have to get rid of all this stuff.’”

Sports deals proved to be difficult and frustrating for Eisner. He recalled signing Mo Vaughn to baseball’s biggest contract at the time — six years, $80 million — to play first base for the Angels in 1999. In the first inning of his first game, the burly first baseman fell into the dugout while trying to catch a foul ball, sprained his ankle and wound up missing the first two weeks of the season. Vaughn would end up playing only two years for the team.

Showing his true colors, Eisner arrived at his first MLB owners meeting in 1996 decked out in California Angels gear.
Photo: getty images

Eisner’s teams enjoyed on-field success — the Angels won the World Series in 2002 and the Ducks made the Stanley Cup Final in 2003. But Eisner decided it didn’t make sense for a corporation to own a team. Disney sold the Angels in 2003 and the Ducks in 2005.

“If you run a sports franchise for the shareholders, you’re probably going to have a pretty poor team and you’re going to be very unpopular in the community,” Eisner said. “If you run it for the community, you’re going to lose a lot of money and be very unpopular with the shareholders. And even though the Ducks and the Angels were maybe a tenth of a percent of the whole company, it was like 40 percent of the publicity.”

• • • •

On a rainy midweek afternoon in downtown New York last month, Eisner was wrapping up an interview to take a trans-Atlantic flight to see his English soccer club, Portsmouth FC, play one of its final games of the season. Eisner was sitting in a conference room at The Topps Co., which he bought in 2007 for $385 million. The office walls were lined with sports memorabilia, everything from old trading cards to Reggie bars that were in a display case in the lobby.

Eisner bought the soccer team in August 2017 for less than $8 million from a group of passionate fans who owned the club. Portsmouth had fallen on hard times, dropping all the way down to the fourth tier of English soccer.

Eisner’s stint as head of Disney from 1984 to 2005 included two major league team purchases and the massive growth of ESPN.
Photo: getty images

When he met with the previous owners, Eisner was frank, telling them that he would not spend millions on high-priced soccer players in a desperate play to be promoted. Rather, he would methodically work to get the club back to the Premier League.

“He didn’t sell them the dream,” said Mark Catlin, Portsmouth’s chief executive. “He’s actually living it, in regards of building the business first. He stuck by those principles in the first year and the fans respect his honesty and integrity in running the business like that.”

For Eisner, 76, the move to own an English soccer team is something of a family affair — he scouted teams to buy with his wife, sister and one of his sons. Eisner clearly is enjoying himself. He frequently attends the team’s games, cheering as much as some of its most rabid fans. Portsmouth finished the season in eighth place, which Catlin described as a good result and an improvement on the previous season.

Eisner is a fan. But he’s not going to let his fandom get in the way of his business sense. When asked why he wanted to own a sports team at this point in his career, Eisner responded with a familiar theme.

“I just thought there was content.”