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Volume 23 No. 23
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‘Everyone trusts Joe’

For nearly 50 years, cable TV pioneer Joe Cohen has been the consummate people person

Joe Cohen, the consummate New York insider, admires his two Rangers tickets for life that he received from Madison Square Garden.

Companies as large as FedEx were launched from a college paper. Joe Cohen’s career in sports television began much the same way. Daunted by the prospect of writing a 100-page thesis, Cohen followed the advice of a Wharton School professor, who advised him to “write about something you’re interested in and it will be fun.”

So in 1969, when cable TV was a dream for most of America, when the NHL had 12 teams and the NBA had 14, Cohen wrote about how the NHL Flyers and NBA 76ers were competing for the leisure-time dollars of Philadelphians. Cohen persuaded Irv Kosloff, then the Sixers owner, and Ed Snider, then and now at the top of the Flyers organization, to fund that Wharton thesis.

“I got $1,000 from each of them,” Cohen recalled. “Ed still teases me that I made money off that deal.”

Snider knew Cohen was going to be a success when he agreed to underwrite that thesis. “He had that entrepreneurial spirit then and still has it today,” Snider said.

That proved to be true. Later in life, following his first of two stints at Madison Square Garden, Cohen helped launch Spectacor and Z Channel, a Los Angeles regional sports network.

Stops along the long and winding road of Joseph Cohen’s career

President, MSG Network
Co-founder, USA Network
President & CEO, Hughes Television Network
President, Sports at The Switch
Chairman, Los Angeles Kings
Executive vice president, Madison Square Garden
President & CEO, Spectacor Films
President, Spectacor West
CEO, Z Channel
Consultant, Spectacor and Rainbow Program Services

Note: Not in chronological order

But back in ’69, at a time before the term sports marketing was in vogue, Cohen’s thesis was solid enough that it landed him an entry-level job with the Flyers, cold-calling for season-ticket sales.

By 1970, Cohen was hired by Madison Square Garden, where he eventually helped launch the MSG Network, a landmark cable outlet that became the model for regional sports networks everywhere, including ones Cohen started in Los Angeles and Cleveland. He helped launch USA Network, which cut the first national cable deals with the big stick-and-ball leagues. Cohen’s work with Major League Baseball during the Peter Ueberroth era in the 1980s made possible sports TV staples like MLB Extra Innings and NFL Sunday Ticket.

Over his nearly 50 years in the business, Cohen has owned the Los Angeles Kings,

bought and sold the same company (Hughes Television Network) three times, and remains a fixture in the decidedly unsexy, but vital, backhaul transmission business as president of sports at The Switch.

“Joe’s been able to be an integral part of the sports media landscape for so many years by reinventing himself,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who’s known Cohen since the early 1980s. “He’s gone from a cable TV executive, to being an entrepreneur with RSNs, to the satellite transmission business as that developed. As media has evolved, he’s evolved right along with it, so he’s managed to be as relevant today as he was when he was launching MSG Network.”

Talk to people about Joe Cohen the businessman and you’ll hear him described as a cable sports pioneer, a man with an inquisitive and analytical mind, a skilled negotiator and an accomplished diplomat.

Most people who know Joe Cohen have known him for a long time and would prefer to discuss his temperament, rather than his business acumen.

“If there’s a person in the world that doesn’t have an enemy, it’s Joe,” said Wayne Gretzky, a close friend who happened to play for Cohen in Los Angeles and New York. “When you walk through Madison Square Garden with him, he knows all the suits, of course, but he also knows the guy at the popcorn stand by name.

“All that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good negotiator — because he is. In business, he taught me that you’ve got to respect the people you are negotiating with, and you have to be patient. Eventually the deal you want will come.”

If you combine Cohen’s legendary people skills with his ability to be at the forefront of opportunity at the nexus of sports and media, then you can begin to explain his success. Accordingly, he’s had long-term personal and business relationships with some of sports’ more irascible characters, like George Steinbrenner and the Dolan family, who grew their cable empire in large part because of the attraction of sports programming.

“Joe’s charming without being slick,” said Cleveland Indians Chairman and CEO Paul Dolan, for whom Cohen established the Sports-Time Ohio RSN 10 years ago, before it was sold to Fox. “He never reacts emotionally during a negotiation. Really, he wasn’t an obvious choice to advise us — he didn’t even have his shingle out then in that business. Then we talked to him and discovered he was uniquely suited. He had worn every hat that can be worn in the sports media business.”

Like so many of the people in Cohen’s Rolodex, Dolan still speaks with Cohen regularly, even though they haven’t done business in years.

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern has known Cohen since they were both young teens at Camp Oquago in the Catskills. Stern signed the NBA’s first cable TV deal with Cohen’s USA Network around 1980. Stern’s recollection is that the 60-game package carried a $400,000 rights fee.

At the time, the NBA Finals were shown, tape delayed, on CBS.

“Joe is the complete relationship person,” Stern said. “He’s open to new ideas and unafraid to pursue them at some cost, while all the time developing solid business and personal relationships.”

“If there’s a hall of fame for schmoozers, Joe would be the linchpin,” added Stern, who certainly could be described with those exact words.

Cohen toasts MSG Network’s first high-definition broadcast, in 1997, with former network President Mike McCarthy (left) and David Shaw (right), former SVP of technical operations and engineering.
“Joe’s definitely smart, creative and forward thinking,” said Jack Krumpe, former CEO of the Meadowlands, the Javits Convention Center and Madison Square Garden, “but personality was, and still is, his greatest asset. That allowed him to open doors easier and always gave him entrée to people and ideas. He always knew the right people. He’d know the name of the guy selling hot dogs at the Garden, but he also had Billy Joel’s telephone number — and they all related to him.”

When most of New York City was unwired, Cohen understood the value of sports programming as a foot in the door.

“Joe understood the power of sports to grow a cable operation well in excess of sports’ impact on overall programming, which is quite a bit,” said former MSG President Bob Gutkowski. “People would be selling door-to-door in the early days. They’d knock and say, ‘Would you like to buy cable television?’ They’d say ‘no’ and start to shut the door. Then they’d say, ‘We have the Knicks and Rangers,’ and they’d say, ‘Come on in.’”

Former MSG Network President Mike McCarthy spent 23 years at MSG, originally working for Cohen. When Cohen returned to MSG in 1995 after a decade away, McCarthy was president of MSG Network. From Cohen’s early days of booking talent at MSG, which included fashioning the formative “Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971, McCarthy recalls an interesting mix of personalities in the MSG suite, with “The Who’s manager and Little Steven from the E Street Band sitting next to people like Tony Ponturo.”

Said Comcast SportsNet Chairman Jack Williams, “There’s no flamboyance with Joe, he just gets it done. I’ve never seen him get really upset with anyone. There are people that throw fits and make enemies, but that’s just not him.”

Ray Levy was hired by Cohen to head ad sales for MSG Network in 1981, when he was selling against a cable audience of less than a million households. As the boroughs got wired, MSG Network’s audience quintupled in size.

“Joe has a deceptively calm demeanor and a great mind,” said Levy, who also helped launch MSG Network, USA Network and the YES Network, and is now a partner at Newark ad and media planning agency GMLV.

“Joe spends an awful lot of time on relationships, and he’s so good at it he could have been a politician. He taught me that you have to spend time with everyone in the building, because those people can make you or break you. He knew every guard and their wives’ names. And he ran interference for us against senior management, which we really needed in those days where cable was new.”

It wasn’t a coincidence that Levy resigned as soon as Cohen told him he was leaving MSG the first time, in 1985. The two ended up sharing office space in New York.

When pressed, Cohen will acknowledge his cult of personality. “My stock in trade has been people,” he said. “Loyalty, taken and given, has always been important to me.”

Small wonder then that former New York Knicks center Willis Reed calls Cohen every May 8 to commemorate the team’s first NBA championship, in 1970.

Cohen soaks in some of the memories from his nearly 50 years in sports business.
If candor and people skills are at the heart of Cohen’s success, where did those abilities originate?

Cohen says his mother taught him to treat everyone with respect during his boyhood in Brooklyn. Once at MSG, he was inculcated in a sort of Jewish/New York City sports/entertainment mafia, where he learned from top practitioners, men like MSG developer Irving Mitchell Felt, who hired Cohen and for whom Cohen was a pallbearer; and former MSG Chairman Sonny Werblin.

“Sonny taught me that even if you win a negotiation, you should treat everyone involved with dignity,” Cohen recalled. “He said the way to a successful career was to have those same people coming back to you for more business.”

The English partners desk used by Werblin at MSG and throughout his career is now in Cohen’s New York apartment. It’s the desk upon which Joe Namath signed his first pro contract.

In the mid-1980s, Bryan Burns, former MLB senior vice president of business operations, enlisted Cohen’s help to scramble the “backhaul” transmission signals that at the time were unscrambled and could be freed by anyone with one of the large “C Band” satellite dishes. That was the beginning of all the league pay-TV packages: MLB Extra Innings, NFL Sunday Ticket, NHL Center Ice and NBA League Pass.

“The beauty of Joe is that he’s one of a very few who understands the cable business and understands its technology,” said Burns, who now heads Forward Direction Group, a Guilford, Conn., sports, media and entertainment consultancy.

 Longtime NBA media chief Ed Desser recalls being 20 minutes late to his first meeting with Cohen, in 1982. No problem; long before cellphones, Cohen was sitting at his favorite lunch place, the old Penn Plaza Club next to MSG, conducting business at a land-line phone that had been installed at his regular table.

“Cable blossomed at the right time, so that Joe was this wunderkind running a TV network in New York at a time the Garden was the only building in town,” Desser said. “He became the consummate New York insider — the guy everyone in the business knows, but no one outside the business has heard of.”

Cohen’s first exit from MSG in 1985, after 15 years and some management changes, earned him a “retired” phone number and two Rangers tickets for life, a mockup of which he still keeps in his midtown office. Cohen then formed two investment syndicates, one that purchased Hughes Television Network in 1986 and another that purchased Z Channel in 1987 in an attempt to convert the all-movie channel into a pay sports and movie channel, with rights from the Dodgers, Angels and Clippers.

“Joe just would find the next developing niche, go there,” said longtime TV sports executive Mike Trager. “In L.A., he went up against powerful guys, Jerry Buss and Bill Daniels, who owned Prime Ticket. Took on powerful guys — I don’t know if I would have done that, but he was never afraid to take a risk.”

By 1989, Cohen was again working as a consultant for Snider’s Spectacor. He was subsequently president of Spectacor West and president and CEO of Spectacor Films.

In the mold of Snider, with whom he worked on Z Channel, Cohen next bought the Los Angeles Kings for a brief period in the mid-’90s. But a three-month NHL lockout and the legal problems of co-owner Jeffrey Sudikoff and former Kings owner Bruce McNall, ultimately both jailed, led the franchise into bankruptcy and forced Cohen and Sudikoff to sell the team in 1995.

Intriguingly, Cohen said he had the same idea eventually adopted by subsequent Kings ownership — a real estate play, anchored by an arena in downtown Los Angeles.

“Our vision in buying the Kings was to build what’s now Staples Center,” Cohen said. “In fact, we had identified that exact location at one point. In searching for sites, I met Ed Roski. He became Phil Anschutz’s partner and they bought the Kings from us.”

By ’95, Cohen was back at MSG at its flourishing cable network, where he helped pioneer regular live HDTV broadcasts of sports — the first RSN to do so.

“Joe’s this unique combination of someone who knows the history and all the people in the business,” said McCarthy, the former MSG Network president, “but he also knows the value of cutting-edge technology.”

Cohen once told his mother, only half in jest, that the sum total of his Wharton education was “buy low, work hard, sell high.” Proof that he follows his own advice: Cohen has bought and sold HTN three times. The backhaul service’s clients include the NBA, NHL, ESPN, MSG, NESN, YES Network and the most recent Super Bowl.

The Switch, where Cohen is now president of sports, acquired HTN in 2013.

“Joe could always recognize an undervalued asset,” Levy said, “and he knows how to make them appreciate in value. The testament to that is that each time [HTN] was out of his hands, it became an undervalued asset again — until Joe bought it back again and then sold it. The truth is that the value was built because of his relationships and his loyalty.

“In a business where there’s a lot of trepidation, everyone trusts Joe.”

“I tell kids entering the business: ‘Arrive early, work late, and you’ll make your own luck, because everyone respects hard work.’ That served me well.”

“One of my first jobs was to collect the dime tolls on what’s now the Gil Hodges Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens. That job was important; it taught me that was something I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life.”

“Owning a team is different. It’s not a faceless manufacturing enterprise. The public believes it has an interest in these entities, and you have to honor that. I believed that at the Garden also.”

“The deal that was maybe easier than I thought was setting up the original USA Network. The deal that took longer than I anticipated was the [Los Angeles] Kings — buying and selling them. The deal that got away was having to sell USA Network in 1981.”

“My best boss was Sonny Werblin; my best business partners have been Ed Snider and Bob Rosencrans.”

“I have a lot of memorabilia, but I guess my favorite pieces are a piece of the Knicks’ [1970] championship game floor, and my [championship] rings from that Knicks team and the Yankees in 1996.”

“When I was at the Garden, there was no indication that [current New York Knicks President] Phil Jackson would one day become one of the most successful NBA coaches. He was like a hippie then.”

“What I learned from Bill Graham and even George Steinbrenner is to learn from young people. You can’t be dismissive of 20-year-olds; they will be your best customers soon.”
                                                                                                    — Compiled by Terry Lefton