George Bodenheimer is the almighty god of the sports world. He giveth endless Brett Favre coverage, and taketh away ice hockey from your consciousness. He is the president of ESPN.ESPN is so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine life for sports fans before the Worldwide Leader.
It’s the television station by default and Internet homepage for many in the coveted 18-54 male demographic. There’s an army of radio stations, niche sports networks and local news sites under the ESPN umbrella. There’s a magazine. There’s a site for women. There are even restaurants and sports bars.
And to think, ESPN’s ascension from successful TV station to world domination started with a mail room clerk.
How he got started – and then climbed to the top
Bodenheimer graduated from Denison University in 1980, desperate to enter the sports industry. After being rejected by Madison Square Garden and numerous teams, he latched on to ESPN as a mail clerk in January 1981, during the company’s infancy.
In March 1982 he was granted his release from the mail room and moved to Dallas to be a South Central region marketing representative. He would move around the Midwest for most of the 1980s selling ESPN to cable operators. The job came easy to him.
“Every town I pulled into a cable operator would say to me, ‘You Know, George, this is a sports town,'” he told Public Radio. “Every town in America thinks they’re a sports town.”
By 1989 he was back in Bristol as a VP of Sales and Marketing, and in the early 1990s ESPN moved him to New York where he was a Senior and Executive VP. He was closely involved in the launches of ESPN.com, and ESPN the Magazine. He also oversaw ESPN2’s debut and unprecedented growth.
Finally, in 1998 Bodenheimer was named President of ESPN. He immediately got to work expanding the network’s coverage areas to previously inconceivable heights. Under his watch, ESPN beams broadcasts of the NBA, NFL, MLB, college football (including all BCS Bowls), college basketball, golf, NASCAR, MLS, European Soccer, tennis, and bowling into 97 million U.S. households.
Through it all, Bodenheimer held tight to ESPN’s journalistic integrity. And that might be his biggest mistake.
Illusions of Journalism
Many have noted that the company’s fortunes are too closely tied to the league’s it purports to cover. Try as he might to downplay that conflict of interest – “the business side of our house isn’t talking to the SportsCenter side” – conspiracy theories abound. Hockey, it is said, doesn’t get its due time on SportsCenter because ESPN doesn’t need to lure people into watching games to which it doesn’t own the rights.
Worse, that journalistic integrity came under closer scrutiny in 2001 when he launched ESPN Original Entertainment, an arm of the company that produced failed fictional TV series (Playmakers), failed reality TV series (The Contender), and failed tabloid style celebrity programming (ESPN Hollywood).
But Bodenheimer wisely re-branded ESPN Original Entertainment as ESPN Films, and the division has gone from a negative to a positive thanks, in part, to this year’s highly successful 30 for 30 series of documentaries.Bodenheimer’s focus on integrity also begat a hiring spree that helped ESPN win the race for scoops and breaking news across the industry.
By transforming morning SportsCenters into live news shows he gave those reports a place to shine on a program with less shtick and more room for interviews, investigations, and breaking news.
The future holds even more ESPN
There’s no front on which ESPN is not expanding. It’s grabbing mindshare of young sports fans with ESPNU, and old-timers with ESPN Classic. It’s attracting local sports fans with market-specific ration stations, and international followers with Premier League broadcasts. And it’s catering to smaller, untapped, Internet markets with individual sites for cities, and larger untapped markets with ESPNW.com It’s coveting people glued to their couch with an early foray into 3D telecasts, and users on the go with an expanding mobile programming.
As long as Bodenheimer is at the helm, it’s easy to foresee ESPN’s future: it’s going to have more. More sports when the NHL’s broadcasting rights are for sale this June, and more influence as it predictably expands its overseas operations. And most of all, more money, as it raises its per-customer fee from $4.62 for ESPN and ESPN2 closer and closer to the unprecedented $5 mark.
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