8 Questions with George Bodenheimer

There is something to be said about starting from the bottom and working your way all the way up to the top. It shows focus, determination, commitment and a willingness to learn.
Starting from the bottom is exactly what George Bodenheimer, a man whom I’ve gotten to know so well over the years, did at ESPN. There are many reasons why ESPN can bill itself as, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” perhaps none-greater than George and all he accomplished. He served as the President of ESPN from 1998-2011 after a career that started as a mailroom clerk. During that time he had a sharp focus on creativity and cutting-edge innovation and launched ESPN’s HD services, 17 new websites for the company (from one) and oversaw the growth in employment from 1,900 to over 7,000, among other achievements. 
George now sits on the Board of Directors at Sirius XM, Under Armour, Denison University and The Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research. He is one of the most influential sports media executives of this age and now he has written a book about how ESPN became what it is today.
I admire George because of how good of a friend he has been to me, how influential his leadership has been and his perspective on the steps you need to take to achieve something in any walk of life. I talked to him recently about his new book, "Every Town is a Sports Town," his career, the future of sports media and more. If you really want to understand how ESPN brought sports to a completely different level in this country, and in the world, you want to read this book.

Brandon Steiner: Why did you write this book? Who did you write the book for?

George Bodenheimer: I wrote this book to highlight the roots of the company’s success- its early history, people and significant events that made ESPN what it is.

BS: Obviously you have been intricately involved in the growth of the biggest sports media conglomerate in the world. What would you say was your biggest miss?

GB: I’ve got plenty to choose from but really wouldn’t want to single any one out. In trying to grow a business if you aren’t “missing” a few then you aren’t trying hard enough. And in todays ever-evolving business climate, if you aren’t busting it everyday to improve your product offering it won’t be long before you are beaten by your competition.

BS: The way we consume television and sports-related content has changed rapidly. It feels as if there is not a person out there that does not use a mobile device to get their game in. What’s the next thing that nobody knows about yet that is going to change the way we watch sports?

GB: The setup of your question is correct— use of mobile devices is growing very rapidly, particularly in the sports media where every day brings new stories, new games and new results. To answer to your question about the next big thing that will change the way we watch sports, I will give you an answer I used a lot as president of ESPN. In fact, I used to refer to it as my favorite answer: “I don’t know!”

But, I will tell you what I do know and that is that ESPN has 7,000 employees who know exactly what the company’s mission is, they know the current priorities and they understand the culture. When your employees know all those things, it is very powerful. Whatever the future brings in terms of opportunities to better serve sports fans, the people at ESPN will be all over it.

BS: There are millions of young people hoping for careers in sports media, yet opportunities can be few and far between. From a business and on-air talent standpoint, what would be your advice to a college student, or someone who has just started out in the business, when it comes to developing a career in the field?

GB: I would tell them to be optimistic. Its a great business, filled with great people and the business continues to grow.  Yes, there is a lot of competition for jobs but if you are persistent and bring something to the table you will succeed in getting your foot in the door.  From there it is up to you how far you take your career.

George Bodenheimer served as President of ESPN from 1998-2011.
George Bodenheimer served as President of ESPN from 1998-2011.

BS: What was your favorite deal? Not the biggest in terms of revenue, but what was the strategic partnership you personally feel made the greatest impact and changed the way things are done?

GB: I was fortunate to be involved in hundreds of deals over the years and while I won’t single any one out, I will say that I am proud of a number of things that ESPN pioneered on the deal-making front. The most important, by far, is the multimedia nature of deals today. It wasn’t that long ago that television networks were buying rights to televise a single game in a single window on a single network. ESPN changed all that as the number of our networks and business grew. New media entered the picture with the advent of digital/internet technology and everything changed. ESPN was, and still is today, on the forefront of that in terms of deal-making.

BS: You are one of the most popular and recognizable faces for people in the sports business. Yet, you’ve maintained a relatively low-key public profile, which is somewhat unusual for someone with your experience. Was that by design?

GB: I always wanted to put the company and its people out front.

BS: Why the V Foundation? From both an ESPN-perspective, as well as for your own personal involvement, what drew you to the organization?

GB: Jim Valvano was a beloved colleague.  His unforgettable speech at the 1993 ESPY’s was a catalyst that drives us all to do what we are doing to raise significant funds for research. Unfortunately the disease affects virtually all of us in one way or another so staying motivated to defeat it is very easy. I enjoy the work.

BS: What’s next for you?

GB: I am staying busy with a number of things, serving on the boards of Sirius XM, Under Armour, Denison University and The V Foundation. I am chairing a fund raising campaign for The V Foundation, so I am spending quite a bit of time on that.  I also do public speaking through the Washington Speakers Bureau.

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