“My first day at ESPN was a rather sharp awakening to my duties,” recalls George Bodenheimer, former president of ESPN and current executive chairman, of his first day working in the mailroom at the then fledgling network. “I wore a coat and tie to work, and that lasted about 30 minutes as I was moving boxes, delivering mail, and going back and forth to the airport.”
Those trips back and forth to the airport, and the opportunity to deliver mail to everyone in the office, put Bodenheimer in a key spot within the organization to learn, learn, and learn.
“During the 40-minute ride to Bradley airport, I would take advantage of the opportunity to talk to people about their lines of work, what they did, and how they liked it,” he says. “It was every educational.”
ESPN SVP/CTO Chuck Pagano was working in the ESPN engineering department in those early days and recalls Bodenheimer’s visits.
“He always had that inquisitive look in his eyes as he surveyed what I was doing in that electronics cavern,” says Pagano. “I tried to give him a quick and non-techie description of what I was doing, and he digested everything I gave him. He had the curiosity of an engineer in him from his very first days at ESPN.”
That inquisitive nature was the first step in a career that today has culminated in a role as executive chairman for ESPN. In between, he worked his way up the ladder through sales and then, 14 years ago, was named president. During his time as president, Bodenheimer oversaw massive growth in the company that lay to rest any thoughts about the validity of sports-content creation and distribution. By January of this year, when he was appointed executive chairman, ESPN had grown to eight domestic TV networks, 48 international networks, 12 HD services, 18 Websites, and much, much more. And through it all, storytelling and technology were front and center.
“George is a once in a generation leader,” says Jed Drake, ESPN, SVP and executive producer. “He IS ESPN. And for all of his incredible accomplishments, he is truly the same great person that he was when he started here over 30 years ago.”
Prior to becoming president, Bodenheimer was responsible for affiliate sales, advertising sales, marketing, and research for all of ESPN’s domestic networks, a career path that began with his applying for a job as an affiliate sales representative in Texas. When he took the job, there was still much uncertainty about whether a 24-hour sports network was viable, but he quickly learned that there was a business model.
“In the hundreds of small towns, we would have the same conversation with the cable operator: a 24-hour sports network is crazy, but this is a sports town, so we will give it a try. And that never varied, whether it was high school, college, or professional sports.”
Cable operators’ passion for sports programming lent additional credence to the ESPN mission of serving the sports fan anytime and anywhere. And technology played an important part.
“When he took over as the leader in our sales department, I remember him telling me that he had to know more about technology because that was where our distribution partners were headed,” Pagano recalls. “He saw the future of his business needing a strong technical component years before it was apparent to others.”
Among the technology successes under Bodenheimer’s watch was the launch of a massive digital center (a second one is under construction) in Bristol, CT; the debut of the nation’s first 1080p-capable broadcast center, in Los Angeles; the launch of the nation’s first HD sports network in 2001; and the nation’s first 3D network.
“Whether it is HD, 3D, or putting content on mobile phones, we know the mission of the company is to be there first for the fans,” adds Bodenheimer. “It’s an innovative spirit that drives the company, and I give all the credit to the employees.”