By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
George Bodenheimer avoids the spotlight.
Perhaps it’s his humble beginnings, his start in the ESPN mailroom in 1981, then the moves up the ladder through affiliate sales and marketing. Or perhaps it’s his belief in the importance of the team over the individual.
Whatever the reason, as he is honored with a Vanguard Award for programmers, he is the first to share credit with others and the last to take it for himself.
Yet the fact remains that ESPN has become the most profitable and the most highly valued cable network in America under Mr. Bodenheimer’s watch. He has orchestrated an incredible expansion of the brand on the Internet, at newsstands, on cellphones and, of course, on television, presiding over an empire that prompted the SportingNews to name him the most powerful person in sports in 2003.
Clearly, one of Mr. Bodenheimer’s strengths is as a consolidator of power. As head of ESPN and ABC Sports and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, he has integrated the customer sales and marketing divisions of ESPN and ABC Sports under a single roof and used the combined assets of the two companies to negotiate a wide-ranging deal with the NBA. He will draw on those assets again as he tries to renew a contract this year for the Sunday and Monday night football franchises.
“I’m not sure either network would be fortunate enough to have an NBA contract if it wasn’t for the partnership that exists between the two companies,” Mr. Bodenheimer said. “The business model is changing, and you need good alternative revenue models.”
He has also proved to be a valuable man in a crisis. ESPN last year found itself embroiled in one of the industry’s more public feuds in recent memory when several cable operators balked at paying its rising license fees. After months of mudslinging back and forth, Mr. Bodenheimer was able to reach compromises by lowering proposed hikes in exchange for commitments to distribute additional properties, such as Spanish-language ESPN De-portes and college sports channel ESPNU.
“His proclivity is to handle those situations in the boardroom rather than in a public forum, but he believes strongly in what he perceives as the value of our company, and he is a tireless defender of that,” said Sean Bratches, president of Disney and ESPN Networks affiliate sales.
Looking forward, Mr. Bodenheimer said he is focused on producing more original content-more than 30 made-for-TV movies are in development-and expanding ESPN’s reach into new distribution platforms, both in the United States and internationally. The company currently broadcasts 25 networks in 11 languages, reaching more than 190 countries and territories.
Mr. Bodenheimer said he is looking forward to working with The Walt Disney Co.’s new CEO Robert Iger, who, once upon a time, worked for ABC Sports.
He said he’s confident about ESPN’s future because of the can-do attitude of his team. Work ethic and loyalty are truly reciprocal at ESPN, according to employees, a fact that seems to be Mr. Bodenheimer’s proudest legacy. But of course he doesn’t take credit for that either.
“I don’t attribute it to anything I’m doing in particular,” he said. “I attribute it to the culture that exists at ESPN. We’ve got a phenomenal culture dedicated to what we do and willing to go the extra mile to do things as good as we can. That’s just kind of the scene at ESPN, and I was fortunate enough to manage it at a point in time. It’s a fantastic company.”
Just the facts
Title: President, ESPN and ABC Sports; co-chairman, Disney Media
How long in current position: President of ESPN since November 1998; became president of ABC Sports in 2003
Year of birth: 1958
Place of birth: Meriden, Conn.
Who knew? He applied for a job to all 26 Major League Baseball teams out of Denison College and received 26 rejections-one in person from Phillies owner Bill Giles, a Denison alumnus.