Few would argue that the two most influential and powerful entities in the U.S. sports are ESPN and the NFL, and it would be hard to envision either without the contributions of Steve Bornstein. As the president/CEO of ESPN throughout its unprecedented growth in the 1990s and the first-ever president of NFL Network, Bornstein joined the pantheon of sports-media executives while cultivating a reputation as one of the most driven and competitive personalities the industry has ever seen.
“Steve is one those pivotal people in the history of sports television,” says fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer. “He’s a smart and tough negotiator, a tremendous leader, and one of the great innovators this business has ever seen. He simply knows how to position the side he’s representing to be successful.”
The Early Days in Wisconsin
The Fair Lawn, NJ, native began his career at the campus television station while attending the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
“I think I caught the TV bug pretty early on,” says Bornstein. “My freshman year, they were building the communication-arts building across from my dorm room, and I ended up starting to work at the university TV station. It sort of took off from there.”
After graduating in 1974, Bornstein bounced around local Wisconsin stations before taking on a three-year stint at WOSU-TV in Columbus, OH, working his way up to the station’s executive producer. While in Columbus, he also produced Ohio State Buckeyes football telecasts for Warner-Amex Cable’s groundbreaking QUBE interactive-cable-television venture, which served as the launchpad for Nickelodeon and MTV and introduced the concepts of pay-per-view and interactive TV services.
The Rise of the World Wide Leader in Sports
Legendary executive Bill Creasy played a key role in QUBE’s development and became close with Bornstein, so, when he was tapped by Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Chet Simmons to run programming at the fledgling ESPN, he brought Bronstein with him.
“Frankly, we were very close to going out of business in the early ’80s,” recounts Bornstein. “It early became quite clear that we weren’t going to be able to make any financial sense out of this unless we changed the model. As a result, ESPN really invented the whole business of affiliation fees for the cable industry. Ultimately, it was such a sound model that it obviously became the standard that the entire cable industry was built on.”
Arriving just four months after the network launched, Bornstein would spend the next two decades helping transform ESPN into a sports-media heavyweight.
After moving through ESPN’s programming and production ranks for 10 years, the 38-year-old Bornstein became the network’s youngest president and CEO in 1990, adding the title of corporate VP of Capital Cities/ABC three years later.
“Steve was the perfect person for that job at that time,” says NFL SVP of Broadcasting/NFL Films COO Howard Katz, who served with Bornstein at ESPN, ABC, and the NFL. “Were it not for Steve, I don’t think ESPN would have seen the enormous growth that they have achieved.”
He would go on to lead ESPN though one of its most prolific eras, overseeing the launch of ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN Radio, ESPN.com, ESPN Regional Television, and a variety of new properties, including the ESPY Awards and X Games, as well as unprecedented global expansion
“With the way that the cable business and ESPN grew side-by-side in the ’90s, Steve was the perfect leader for that decade,” says ESPN on-air stalwart Chris Berman. “We could have made a lot of wrong turns, but we didn’t, and the proof is where we are today.”
In addition, Bornstein championed ESPN’s launch of the V Foundation for Cancer Research with Jimmy Valvano in 1993. The master negotiator and programmer also played a key role in the extreme expansion of SportsCenter, the addition of college basketball and football programming, and, most important, the arrival of live NFL games in 1987.
“Steve expected excellence, and that contributed to our culture,” says ESPN EVP, Programming and Production, John Wildhack. “It helped us set very high standards across the company in every way we ran our business and created our content.”
In 1996, Bornstein became ESPN chairman and took on added oversight of ABC Sports, serving as president. By this point, thanks largely to its dual-revenue-stream model of advertising and subscription fees that Bornstein helped pioneer, ESPN had become a true sports-media behemoth.
“At ESPN, he picked up after the embryonic stage and really took it to a whole other level from a production and business standpoint,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer. “He also put the majority of the team together that has taken over since he moved on and taken it to where it is today, which is pretty amazing.”
In 1999, after nearly two decades at ESPN, Bornstein transitioned into a series of top positions at other Disney-owned properties, serving as chairman of Walt Disney Internet Group, president of ABC Inc., and president of ABC Television. In addition, as chairman of Buena Vista Internet Group, he oversaw Disney’s attempted launch of the Go.com Internet portal to rival established online titans AOL and Yahoo.
The NFL Awaits
By 2002, Bornstein had moved on from Disney and was searching for a new challenge just as the NFL was looking to ramp up its media operations and launch its own 24-hour cable network. He signed on as president of NFL Network and EVP of media, building the league’s media-operations team and laying the foundation in the lead-up to NFL Network’s launch in 2003.
“Steve is definitely the most challenging person I’ve ever worked for,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Geoffrey Mason, who worked with Bornstein at ESPN and during the launch of NFL Network. “He is incredibly demanding, but the rewards one gets are far beyond the norm. He is extremely loyal, but he drives his people. When you finish with Steve, you know you have been through the mill, but you have done some really amazing.”
Despite the NFL’s clout as a U.S. sports powerhouse and the presence of Thursday-night games beginning in 2006, the NFL Network had to claw its way to full distribution. Once again, the hard-negotiating Bornstein was at the forefront of carriage talks and was eventually able to secure key deals with major cable/satellite/telco providers, allowing the NFL Network to be available in more than 70 million households.
“Steve certainly left a lasting impact on the NFL,” says NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “He launched the NFL Network and drove it to full distribution, but he did a lot more. He built out our entire media operation, which is very complex and includes all our digital assets, and he was a key strategist in our television negotiations and sponsorship agreements.”
Bornstein also played an integral role in the NFL’s series of escalating multimillion/billion-dollar rights deals over the past decade, helping engineer lucrative rights packages for Sunday Night Football on NBC, Monday Night Football on ESPN, and the NFL on CBS and Fox.
“The NFL was quite successful before I ever walked in the door, and, frankly, they would be very successful without me,” says Bornstein. “But I think I got [the league] focused on owning some of their own media assets and the advantages of that. I think the balance between having one foot in the mainstream media business with strong broadcasting and cable partners while also doing a first-class job with [NFL Network and digital offerings] has given the NFL the ability to basically have their cake and eat it, too. It allows them to have the best of both worlds.”
Last spring, Bornstein stepped down from his post at the NFL, having led the effort to solidify the NFL Network as a legitimate player in cable sports and cement the NFL as the most valuable sports property in North America.
“He was always so well-prepared and thinking ahead; he’s a great strategist,” says Goodell. “I know he is also very proud of the NFL Media leadership team he put in place. He mentored them and made sure we would have strong continuity when he left. He set us up for continued success, and the entire NFL is grateful for all that he did.”
Not Done Yet
Despite his extensive accomplishments, the father of four, who lives with his wife, Carol, in Los Angeles, says he’s not done yet.
“There has probably never been a more exciting time to be in the media business than right now, with the promise of convergence finally coming true today,” he says. “That is a really exciting opportunity, so I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”
Although Bornstein may not be ready to ride off into the sunset quite yet, one thing is clear: his legacy as a sports-media industry legend has already been solidified.
“I know Steve has a fire in his belly and wants to do more,” says Katz, “but, if he did nothing else from this point on, he would still go down as one of the greatest executives ever in sports media and the media industry at large. And nothing can change that.”
— Jason Dachman, SVG, Managing Editor