By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
It’s exceedingly rare for someone with the talent and ability to lead an entertainment company to remain with that company for an entire career, but ESPN President George Bodenheimer has done just that. He joined the fledgling network right out of college and rose through the ranks over 24 years.
During that time he has had a hand in many of ESPN’s accomplishments. Just this year he presided over the debut of ESPN Deportes, the network’s Spanish-language franchise, and led ESPN to its 10th consecutive quarter of audience growth.
Mr. Bodenheimer’s full title is actually co-chair, Disney Media Networks, president, ESPN and ABC Sports, and chair, ESPN board of directors. He assumed the ESPN presidency in 1998.
He works closely with Michael Eisner, chairman of The Walt Disney Co. Both men are graduates of Denison University in Ohio, but Mr. Bodenheimer jovially discounted the notion that there’s some kind of Denison Mafia afoot. “No, it’s just a fun coincidence,” he said. “We didn’t even realize it until a few years ago.”
ESPN’s official biography of the man whose contributions have been integral to the company’s success states that Mr. Bodenheimer’s tenure began in January 1981 in the “administration department.” That’s a euphemism for the mailroom.
“I get a kick out of knowing he’s now my boss,” said longtime ESPN sportscaster Dick Vitale. “He used to be one of the young guys who picked me up at the airport and got my newspapers, stuff like that. He’d say to me, `I don’t know. I went to a good college, and I’m in the mailroom going nowhere,’ and I’d tell him, `What are you worried about? You’ve got it, kid. You’re going to make it big.’
“Now I think, `Good thing I was nice to him.”‘
Mr. Bodenheimer did have a steady rise at ESPN, one that saw him involved in most off-camera aspects of the business during the almost 21/2 decades of his employment. Throughout the 1980s he worked in various executive positions in affiliate sales and marketing. He first earned his VP stripes in 1989 in affiliate sales, Eastern division. By 1995 Mr. Bodenheimer was senior VP, sales and marketing.
“It really isn’t surprising that George grew with ESPN and is now running the company,” said Russell Wolff, senior VP and managing director, ESPN International. “He is very creative and very focused at the strategic level.”
“George is a good friend to me and to a lot of us,” said sportscaster Chris Berman, who pre-dates Mr. Bodenheimer at ESPN by about a year. “It’s great for us here to have a company president who at one time or another has done about everything in the company. He knows the ESPN business.”
It’s a business Mr. Bodenheimer has helped to continuously expand.
“We are in a growth era,” he said. “In the past 36 months we’ve branched out in original entertainment programs, in reaching the Spanish-speaking market in the U.S. and sports fans internationally. We have a persistent and innovative work force I’m proud of.”
Mr. Bodenheimer used the combined assets of ESPN, ABC and parent company Disney to negotiate a wide-ranging, multimedia, multiyear agreement with the NBA. In doing so, he made ESPN the first TV network in history to own rights to all four major professional sports leagues-NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA-at the same time. ESPN also now has rights to the PGA Tour, World Cup and MLS soccer and every game of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Mr. Bodenheimer created ESPN Original Entertainment, which now offers scripted and reality programs to augment sports coverage. He acquired the businesses and assets of BASS, the world’s largest fishing organization; expanded the global reach of the X Games, which feature alternative sports; and re-launched ESPNews, an around-the-clock sports news network.
Mr. Bodenheimer has overseen the launch of nine new networks internationally, while at the same time focusing on new directions in technology such as interactive TV, broadband technology and wireless products. ESPN also launched a high-definition simulcast of its base network in March 2003.
“We are a content provider,” he said. “But we want to resonate with our audience, not just in content but through the means they are using to find that content.”
He has also made an impact as head of ABC Sports and Disney Media Networks. ABC Sports continues to have the most comprehensive sports programming of any broadcast network, from “Monday Night Football” to its telecast of the World Figure Skating Championship.
“We are two sports operations under the Disney banner,” Mr. Bodenheimer said. “We all grew up watching sports on ABC. It’s a great legacy of leadership in sports. I’d like it said that ESPN is weaving its legacy of sports leadership as well. You will see the continued growth of two great sports traditions.”
For a man with such pressing corporate interests at heart, Mr. Bodenheimer draws raves from those who work with him. “George is an amazing boss to work for,” Mr. Wolff said. “He is extremely committed to growing the ESPN brand overseas.”
“He’s a doer and great to work for,” said Rick Alessandri, senior VP and general manager, ESPN Enterprises, once Mr. Bodenheimer’s assistant. “George is a regular guy with great integrity and a great love of sports.”
Mr. Bodenheimer’s reach has carried over to the greater cable industry. He chaired the marketing committee for the National Cable Telecommunications Association’s successful “On Time Guarantee” initiative, and has led ESPN’s Cable in the Classroom efforts while serving on the board for that educational program at the NCTA. He is based at ESPN’s New York offices, though he also works from the Bristol, Conn., headquarters. Mr. Bodenheimer is married and has three children.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really reflected on why I’ve stayed at one company for 24 years,” he said. “I know I never really contemplated leaving ESPN. I love this company, and I love the people at this company.”