George Bodenheimer was a longtime ESPN executive and cable industry pioneer. As its longest-tenured President, he led ESPN through an unprecedented period of growth and innovation. George was first hired at ESPN in 1981 as a mailroom clerk where one of his early jobs was to pick up college basketball analyst Dick Vitale (see his Winner’s profile) at the Hartford airport and drive him to ESPN’s studios in Bristol, CT. But he would rise through the ranks in a manner that was as impressive as it was rapid, and in 1998 George was named President. He retired as Executive Chairman on May 31, 2014 after having played a major role in making ESPN an almost daily presence in the lives of sports fans in this country and abroad. At all times, his focal point was the company’s strategic mission: “Serving Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”
George and I met shortly after he added the job of President, ABC Sports to his ESPN duties in 2003. We would become regular business acquaintances and good friends after he was named Co-Chairman of the Disney Media Networks in 2004. Coincidentally, I was elected to serve on the Board of Governors of the ABC Television Affiliates Association around the same time. Over the next 10 years, we would talk often and collaborate regularly on matters that were important to both the ABC broadcast network and its affiliates, as well as the ESPN cable networks that were majority owned by ABC’s corporate parent, The Walt Disney Company. Even on those occasions when positions were at odds or our respective interests conflicted, the dialogue always remained cordial and constructive. That was especially important when Disney opted to consolidate the corporate structure of ESPN and ABC Sports, followed by moves to migrate properties with a long history on ABC to ESPN.
Here are some of the notable challenges and opportunities that ESPN and its ABC affiliates had to navigate our way around during George’s tenure:
Monday Night Football (2005) – For countless sports fans, this revolutionary sports franchise was an American institution. While it had been a staple on the ABC primetime schedule since its launch in 1970, the ratings had been trending downward. Even more troubling was the fact that even though affiliates were contributing upwards of $35 million annually to the network, the property was losing approximately $150 million a year on the eight-year rights deal set to expire after the 2005 season. Without the dual revenue stream of advertising and subscriber fees enjoyed by cable networks, affiliates were in no position to increase their contribution. As a result, Monday Night Football moved to ESPN beginning with the 2006 season. This seminal event was a foreshadowing of how sports programming would move from over-the-air broadcast to pay tv platforms in the years to follow. By a fluke of timing, ABC’s final NFL broadcast in its own right ended up being Super Bowl XL played at Ford Field in Detroit, MI on February 5, 2006. It was also noteworthy for being the first Super Bowl where all aspects of the game were produced in High Definition as the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10. (The NFL returned to ABC in 2016 when ESPN announced that one Wild Card Playoff game would be simulcast on ABC during the post-season – Ed.)
Saturday Night Football (2006) – “It’s a huge day for ESPN,” said George Bodenheimer when making the announcement that Monday Night Football was moving to the all-sports cable network. He added, “From the Disney perspective, it was a smart move for ABC by moving out of football and having ESPN move into Monday nights.” Smart or not, I encouraged George to be mindful of how the loss of such a longstanding program on the ABC schedule would impact the psyche of the broadcast network’s affiliate body. These concerns jump-started discussions about a new marquee franchise: primetime college football. George and his team in Bristol “ran the traps” at warp speed to enable a seamless transition from NFL Monday’s to College Football Saturday’s. This led to the premiere of Saturday Night Football on September 2, 2006 featuring a game between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. George called the following week to inform me that what we had created was, in fact, the first collegiate sports franchise to appear regularly on a major broadcast network’s primetime schedule. John Wildhack, EVP of Programming for ESPN at the time, would tell me years later how this development was critical to ESPN’s overall college football strategy. “We had long ago identified college football as a growth property. My team and I moved away from the old days of 4-way regional telecasts on ABC. Instead, we viewed college football as a national sport. Creating the Saturday Night Football franchise was essential to keeping ESPN/ABC as the leader in regular season college football, and it was quickly embraced by the major conferences,” Wildhack said. A key to the national strategy was the implementation of “reverse mirrors” which permitted regional games on ABC to be presented in a conference’s home markets while ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU would show the game in other outer-markets. Wildhack also told me how he “had robust debates with many ESPN colleagues who wanted to diminish the number of windows on ABC.” With the creation of the Saturday Night Football franchise, ABC affiliates scored an important win for a broadcast network with a history of televising regular season college football games that dates back to 1950; college football was in the ABC Television Network’s DNA and affiliates hoped to keep it that way for years to come.
“ESPN on ABC” (2006) – What was perhaps the greatest sports-related challenge during my term as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the ABC Television Affiliates Association surfaced in the summer of 2006. George called from his Rhode Island vacation home to inform me that he and his boss, Bob Iger, had determined that ABC Sports should be fully integrated into ESPN. At my urging, George agreed to participate in a conference call with the entire Board of Governors later that same day. The integration plan George described to us – including the use of ESPN’s graphics, music, production staff and on-air talent – made it clear that ABC Sports would be dissolved in order to position ESPN as The Walt Disney Company’s singular sports brand. “The opportunity to marry the ESPN brand to the ABC television network to better serve fans is what this is all about,” George said later at the time of the official announcement. It was difficult to make a credible argument against such a move in light of ESPN’s explosive growth and position as the #1 preferred brand for sports viewing, far beyond that of ABC Sports and the sports divisions of NBC, CBS or Fox. Even so, I cautioned George that scrapping the ABC Sports brand with its rich and glorious history (Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football, numerous Olympics Games, the Indy 500, etc.) and the legacy of legendary sports producer Roone Allege (who introduced slow motion replay, freeze frame, split-screen, hand-held cameras, end zone cameras, etc.) was certain to produce further anxiety among broadcast affiliates. Longtime ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson stirred the pot even more when he said, “It was inevitable. When ABC was sold to Capital Cities, and then to Disney, the handwriting was on the wall. A lot of people worked to make ABC what it was, and they deserve more than to have their legacy callously tossed aside.” To George’s credit, he responded to such criticism by saying, “The fact that we’re now placing a greater emphasis on ESPN is not intended to convey a lack of respect for what ABC built.” He and his team listened attentively to concerns and constructive suggestions from affiliates about the use and placement of an “ESPN on ABC” graphic and ABC logo in promotion spots and during broadcasts on the network to limit any possibility of confusion among viewers about what platform they were watching. In 2007, George presented credible research to the Board of Governors which showed that viewers responded better to, and got more enjoyment from, sports programming on ABC that was associated with the ESPN brand.
“NASCAR on ABC” (2006) – Around the time of our discussions about creating a primetime college football franchise to compensate for the loss of Monday Night Football, George and I also talked about other opportunities on the horizon. One such opening involved NASCAR and an eight-year, $4.48 billion television rights deal beginning in 2007 providing for the sharing of their 36-race season by ABC/ESPN, Fox and TNT. George called me with the exciting news that ABC/ESPN would have the final 17 races of the Cup season and the entire Busch Series schedule. It was especially gratifying to learn that 11 of the 17 Cup races would be scheduled on ABC, including the entire 10-race “Chase” for the championship. It would mark a return to a sport – one that claims to be the second-most watched on television – for both ABC and ESPN which had not televised NASCAR since 2000. “When NASCAR returns ‘home’ to ABC and ESPN, fans will instantly recognize the passion and expertise that distinguished our coverage for 30 years, but now applied with an unprecedented, multimedia commitment,” George said when making the formal announcement. “The extent of our coverage and our talent and production team will set a new standard for service to NASCAR fans.” Once again, ABC affiliates had scored an important win for a broadcast network that had a long history with NASCAR dating back to the early days of Wide World of Sports.
“NBA on ABC” (2007) – The NBA is yet another sports property that has a rich history on ABC, having broadcast games from 1965-73 with play-by-play announcers Keith Jackson and Chris Schenkel, and color commentators Jack Twyman, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. In 2002, the NBA announced a six-year deal once again giving ABC, along with ESPN, the rights to games in favor of their previous agreement with NBC. Those rights were up for renewal at the very time George scheduled a June 2007 visit to see me in Iowa, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James in that franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals appearance, had just been swept in four games by the San Antonio Spurs in a best-of-seven series. The lost commercial inventory attributable to the sweep was exacerbated by a record low 6.2 rating/11 share for the Finals on ABC. Did we really want to extend the current agreement? George and I talked about the future of the NBA which, at the time, was still looking for “stars” like Michael Jordan. The league was facing an image problem that Commissioner David Stern was working hard to address. (While no league can expect all its players to be perfect citizens and/or role models, the NBA made great strides in the years since June 2007. This was especially evident at the 2016 ESPYs when Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul took the stage during the opening moments of the broadcast to call upon their fellow athletes to be a force for social change. LeBron James said, “Let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence and, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them.” It was a powerful way to open the ESPYs broadcast on ABC – Ed.) Going back to our June 2007 meeting, George and I also discussed the growing importance of live “DVR-proof” sports programming, and first-run programming of any kind in the summer. Bottom line: the agreement with the NBA was renewed just a few weeks later and the ESPN/ABC rights were extended through the 2015-16 season. “I consider this to be a wonderful vote of confidence by our very sophisticated network partners who are making such a substantial and long-term commitment,” Commissioner Stern said. I called George after seeing that quote and jokingly told him that Mr. Stern may have confused our desperation for sophistication! More seriously, George was also quoted at the time of the announcement saying, “We are in this for the long term with the NBA. Sports is cyclical; they go up and down…But it’s an incredibly consistent property for us.” This vision and confidence in the NBA was warranted. In the 2016 NBA Finals, the last season tied to the eight-year extension, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were ever so coincidently back in the Finals. This time, they climbed back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors led by Stephen Curry in one of the best-played and highest- rated Finals in NBA history.
“BCS Football” (2008) – As noted earlier, broadcast affiliates have enjoyed a proud and longstanding association with college football games on ABC. It culminated each year with the tradition of presenting some of the highest-profile bowl games and, dating back to the 1999 season, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The BCS involved five bowl games featuring the ten top-ranked teams in college football, featuring a selection system that was controversial and frequently panned by many players, coaches, fans and sportswriters. “ABC didn’t devise the BCS system,” said longtime ABC Sports’ programming executive Loren Matthews in 2000. “We are just going along with what they drew up. But we haven’t been able to come with anything better.” The BCS’ paradox was summed up perfectly many years later in May 2008 by ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel: “The Bowl Championship Series is 10 years old, and if you listen to its legion of critics, it is so screwed up that the only thing it’s missing is a congressional birthright. The BCS is a symbol of tradition over efficiency, a triumph of the needs of the powerful over the wishes of the masses, a mockery of common sense and simplicity.” And then Maisel added this, “But here’s the thing: since college football adopted the BCS as a convoluted, inexplicable method of staging a national championship game, the sport has never been more successful.” At the outset, ABC held the rights to all the BCS games. Even during the 2006-2009 seasons when Fox Sports acquired the rights to many of the BCS games, ABC affiliates could always count on games from the Rose Bowl being presented on their network. All that changed in November 2008 when ESPN finalized a $125 million annual agreement which once again gave them the rights to all the BCS games from January 2011 to 2014, and announced they would be carried exclusively on the cable network. Never mind that back in August 2004 it was announced that ABC, which first presented the Rose Bowl in 1989, would continue doing so through at least 2014 as the result of an extension reached with the Rose Bowl management committee. And never mind that ESPN at the time was available in about 98 million homes, far fewer than the approximately 115 million homes that over-the-air networks like ABC reached. ABC affiliates were not alone in expressing their frustration with this development. Fox, which had been paying about $82.5 million annually for the rights to four BCS games said in a statement, “Fox Sports made a very competitive bid to keep broadcasting BCS games free to every home in America, one that included a substantial rights increase and certainly as much as any over-the-air network could responsibly risk” before college football chose “to take their crown jewel events to pay television.” George was undeterred, saying “The BCS will thrive on ESPN. Our slogan is ‘College Football Lives Here’ and the BCS will now top college football’s best regular-season and studio coverage, the sport’s top awards show, Bowl Week and other national championships all carried on our family of networks.” The news came as a shock to ABC stations but, to his credit, George had members of his team give the affiliate board a heads-up. I sent an email to fellow board members in follow up to a phone call with George a week or so prior to the formal announcement which, in part, said, “I replayed the key points of our discussions in our (November 11) meetings…(and) made a passionate ‘appeal’ for he and his team to reconsider their approach to moving all the BCS games to ESPN – even if it meant that the Rose Bowl move to ESPN in non-championship years…(and) argued that our partnership related to regular season college football would be marginalized if we were shut out of the best post-season action…And finally, I suggested he visit with Preston Padden (Padden was a former president of the ABC Television Network who at the time was serving as Executive Vice-President for Government Relations for The Walt Disney Company – Ed.) who might have more insight than anyone within Disney about the sensitivity and public policy implications of placing a major sports championship event of this magnitude on a pay-only platform.” To the latter point, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) issued a statement in late November 2008 which raised concerns about the prospect of the BCS leaving out about 20 million television viewers who rely on free over-the-air television. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said, “The question is whether college presidents and athletic directors at publicly funded institutions should be complicit in disenfranchising 20 percent of citizenry from access to the most popular college football games.” I turned to an old friend and confidant, Bob Bowlsby, for some advice and counsel about this historic development. Bob was the well-respected Athletic Director at Stanford University. He was also the former Athletic Director at the University of Iowa and two-time chairman of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament committee. Bob, who was named Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference in 2012, told me at the time that my “public policy” argument was strong on the merits, but the economic realities were such that the BCS had no choice but to overlook ESPN’s smaller reach in favor of the substantive difference in rights fees. Yes, even the NCAA would look the other way to reaffirm an old axiom in sports: TV rights always go to the highest bidder. In June 2009, despite and over the continuing objections of its broadcast partners, it was officially announced that the Rose Bowl would move from ABC to ESPN in 2011. Effective with the 2014 season, the BCS was dissolved altogether and replaced by a College Football Playoff involving four teams in two semi-final playoff games and a national championship game presented exclusively on ESPN. It should be noted that the College Football Playoff’s four-team format did not eliminate the controversy associated with the chase for a national championship as any such format will, by its nature, inevitably result in some contenders being left out. As recently as 2017, Alabama was chosen over Ohio State in a decision questioned and widely debated in many quarters.
“The Great Migration is On” (2008) – Even before the move of college football’s post-season championship games was initiated in 2008, I received a phone call from ESPN’s EVP of Programming, John Wildhack, with news concerning another legacy sports property: The Open Championship. He informed me in strict confidence that the British Open, as it’s known to many, would move from ABC to ESPN beginning in 2010. While it was not likely to produce the same level of anxiety among affiliates as the BCS changes did, it was nonetheless noteworthy given that ABC had served as the home of the British Open since 1962. It was, in point of fact, the longest-running sports program in the network’s history! Looking back, this call from John marked the beginning of the migration of many live sporting events from broadcast to cable. Unlike broadcasters, cable networks benefited significantly from subscriber fees and ESPN’s were the industry’s highest. It was becoming increasingly clear that they were in an enviable position to leverage that advantage. Just prior to the 2010 British Open becoming the first of golf’s four majors to be presented exclusively on a cable network, Wildhack did not shy away from the obvious saying, “It’s part of our strategy and it’s part of the evolution of the industry. You’re seeing cable continuing to televise more and more championship events and do so exclusively.” Any concerns affiliates had in 2006 about “ESPN on ABC” were now supplanted with those of “ESPN not on ABC.” On the heels of the British Open announcement, eight NASCAR races were moved in Fall 2008. And, as previously announced, the Rose Bowl was moved following ABC’s broadcast in January 2010. Many affiliate leaders such as Bill Hoffman, VP and General Manager of powerhouse WSB-TV in Atlanta and a highly-respected member of the affiliate board, spoke out: “The migration of more and more live sporting events from ABC to ESPN is troubling. Not only have we lost these sporting events, but now we also have to compete against those telecasts on ESPN. NASCAR is a huge lifestyle in the South. It’s indigenous to the region. And now most of the live races on broadcast are gone.” Ironically, ESPN would lose out on the rights to NASCAR in 2013 and the British Open in 2015 as they faced renewed competition from NBC Sports and their new owners, Comcast. Fox, CBS, NFL and Big 10 Conference were also launching their own sports networks. While ABC affiliates still had college football, the NBA, the Indy 500, the Little League World Series and other sports programming on their program schedule, it was becoming apparent that ESPN and ABC would have to work closer together than ever before to find common ground and shared success in an escalating rights – and increasingly competitive – environment.
“World Cup Soccer” (2010-14) – Shortly after being named ESPN Executive VP for Content in 2005, John Skipper would lead the effort to bring the FIFA World Cup to ESPN and ABC. The vision, risk-taking and passion displayed by John in this endeavor may well have contributed to him later being named to succeed George Bodenheimer as ESPN President and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks on January 1, 2012. In a deal worth $100 million to FIFA, ESPN/ABC acquired the U.S. English-language television rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups to be held in South Africa and Brazil, respectively. There were many discussions about exactly how to produce and allocate the massive schedule of 64 games across the various platforms. John Skipper said, “At some point you’ve got to treat it (the World Cup) like the significant sporting event it is.” He would later tell USA Today the following: “What we’re hoping to bring to (the World Cup) is Olympic-quality production. Not just the cameras but the feel of it. That it feels big. That it feels international. That it feels more than just about competition. It’s competition. But it’s also culture. And human drama.” I recall thinking at the time about just how much John Skipper sounded like Roone Arledge! Importantly, he had George’s full support and backing as 10 matches were scheduled on ABC, 10 on ESPN2, and 44 on ESPN. Together, the networks presented soccer 12 hours a day during the first round; ESPN produced another 250+ hours of original programming around the games. Audiences responded as the ratings improved 40% over those for the 2006 World Cup. And just as Skipper had predicted, one in every three viewers watched the games on a device other than a television. But despite all that ESPN/ABC did to raise soccer’s popularity in the United States, FIFA dropped a bombshell by awarding the rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Fox for an estimated $500 million. Coming as it did with the 2014 World Cup on the near horizon, this announcement drove home for me the “what have you done for me lately” nature of sports rights negotiations. ESPN was much more diplomatic in their statement at the time: “We made a disciplined bid that would have been both valuable to FIFA and profitable to our company, while continuing to grow our unprecedented coverage of the World Cup and Women’s World Cup events. We were aggressive while remaining prudent from a business perspective.” In February 2015, with rampant rumors of corruption engulfing FIFA, they extended their agreement with Fox through 2026 without so much as a courtesy call beforehand. On this occasion, ESPN’s statement was justifiably more terse: “We were not invited to be involved in this process. Considering the high quality presentation that ESPN demonstrated and the exposure we brought to FIFA events through all our platforms (including ABC), it was surprising and disappointing to learn of this when the press release was issued.” It remains to be seen if the World Cup will ever return to ESPN and ABC.
“Going for Gold” (2011) – The Olympic Games were another key sports property with a long and distinguished history on ABC. Under the careful direction of Roone Arledge, the network’s association with the International Olympic Committee began with the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Audiences were intrigued even more by the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France where Jean-Claude Killy swept the men’s alpine skiing events. The Summer Games in Mexico City later that same year were the sight of a world-record long jump by Bob Beamon of the United States which aired live in the United States; a civil rights protest in the form of a “black power” salute by African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 200 meter race medal ceremony stirred emotions. (Ironically, Smith and Carlos were honored forty years later at the 2008 ESPYs with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award – Ed.) At the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, there were incredible performances by American swimmer Mark Spitz and Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut; sadly, they were overshadowed when Palestinian terrorists attacked the Olympic Village and killed 11 members of the Israeli team. Jim McKay was on the air for 14 straight hours and would later be honored with an Emmy Award for his extraordinary work. Fast forwarding to the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY, the country was captivated by the “Miracle on Ice” when a U.S. team comprised of amateur and collegiate players defeated a Soviet team considered by many to be the best in the world. ABC televised its last Summer Games from Los Angeles in 1984, and last Winter Games from Calgary in 1988. Given that historic backdrop, it’s easy to see why the ABC Board of Governors was excited when ESPN confirmed to us in May 2011 that they were going to make a hard run at the Olympics franchise in the form of a bid for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia and 2016 Summer Games in a “to be announced” host city. As far back as September 2009, ESPN had conveyed its interest and was assured by the IOC that they would have a seat at the table. “There’s no question the Olympics would continue the process of establishing ESPN as the home of championship sports and great sports,” said John Skipper. The concern among affiliates was the extent to which, if any, they would be included in ESPN’s plans. In an October 2009 phone call with George, that question was asked and answered. My email to the executive committee summarized our conversation as follows: “They were disappointed that Chicago did not land the ’16 summer games. That said, they are still exploring what opportunities they might have to take the ’14 Winter Games and ’16 Summer Games away from NBC. He assured me that John Skipper will be getting back to us when the time is right to pick up where our last conversations in regards to an ABC/ESPN combo bid left off.” (Just days prior to this call with George, the IOC named Rio de Janeiro as host city for the 2016 Summer Games. Rio beat out Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid and would become the first South American city to host an Olympics. Our country had not hosted a summer games since 1996 in Atlanta, and a Chicago-hosted games would have made the broadcast rights far more valuable – Ed.) In May 2011 the approach that ESPN would take was spelled out in an earnings call by Disney CEO Bob Iger. “While ESPN certainly intends to take a look at the Olympics seriously, ESPN’s also demonstrated a great ability to walk away from opportunities that they didn’t believe made sense from a bottom line perspective and they have also demonstrated an ability to divest certain rights that they feel weren’t driving the value that other rights could have,” Iger told the analysts. “It’s going to continue to be a balance.” Disney would signal a short time later that they were considering a marketing deal involving The Olympic Partner (TOP) program which would lend further support to any rights bid. “Think Mickey Mouse with the Olympic Rings” is how the Sports Business Journal described it at the time. The possibility became quite real when ESPN and ABC executives asked to meet with a select group of board members around the annual affiliate meeting in May 2011. They presented a “confidential & proprietary” draft proposal which included program schedules, local news opportunities, digital content and streaming rights, marketing commitments and inventory allocations. One element of the preliminary draft stood out: ESPN planned to show the games live around the clock at whatever time they occurred. This represented a major change and differentiator compared to NBC’s approach which relied heavily on taped coverage. By the end of the affiliate meeting, the board agreed to support ESPN’s presentation to the IOC with a substantial cash contribution and inventory considerations in order to ensure that the broadcast network would benefit from a successful bid. Weeks later in early June 2011, the Disney delegation led by George Bodenheimer, Bob Iger and CFO Jay Rasulo descended on the home of the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland in search of Olympic gold. The pitch was made to an IOC group led by President Jacques Rogge and executive committee member/lead negotiator Richard Carrion. The Sports Business Journal reported the following a short time later: “The (ESPN) group led a crisp presentation that emphasized its Olympic past with ABC; its present on ESPN, which broadcasts the Games in 12 countries; and the promise of a future with Disney….When the presentation ended, one senior Olympic official said that on a scale of one to 10, ESPN’s presentation was an 11. The question in everyone’s mind in the room was: Would they bid enough to win?” The answer was no. When the news of longtime NBC Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol’s unexpected resignation broke the month before, competing networks’ chances of knocking off NBC got a confidence boost. But in the end, incumbent rights holder NBC held serve with a proposal that included a kicker worth several hundred million dollars if the IOC accepted their bid for four Olympic Games. In total, the deal was worth $4.38 billion not including the TOP sponsorship from GE which was worth another $200 million. ESPN had, in fact, submitted a bid of $1.4 billion for two Games that turned out to be well short of the mark in terms of both dollars and years. Our ABC affiliate board was comfortable with what we had offered to ESPN in the way of support, and no one on our side had second thoughts or was otherwise critical about whether or not the bid should have been more aggressive. George told me, “We would be lucky to break even at rights fees of nearly a billion and a half dollars.” But the unknowns associated with a bid for four Games – in two host cities that had yet to be announced – most definitely factored into Bob Iger’s not wanting to put Disney, ESPN and/or ABC in positions of undue risk. Besides, NBC’s winning bid was almost $1 billion higher than the only other bid including the 2018 and 2020 Games that was submitted by Fox! Perhaps the only thing better than actually winning a high profile rights auction is losing out to a competitor who is willing to dramatically overpay for those rights, and doing so to such an extent that it might limit their ability to compete for other properties in the future. Our only consolation with the outcome in Switzerland was the belief that NBC had boxed themselves into just such a corner.
Thursday Night Football (2014) – In January 2014, several months prior to George Bodenheimer stepping down as Executive Chairman of ESPN, the NFL offered the networks a shot at the Thursday night package of games which had heretofore been exclusive to the NFL Network but lagged behind the ratings of the NFL’s other packages. A request for proposal was sent out to all the current rights holders with an extremely tight turnaround. Mike Devlin, President and General Manager of WFAA-TV in Dallas and then Chairman of the ABC Affiliate Board, asked me to serve on a special committee to work with ESPN on a bid they could submit on behalf of the broadcast network. It was widely reported at the time that the NFL preferred to put the new package on broadcast television, so our affiliate committee was encouraged as we explored this unexpected opportunity to get back in the NFL game. But there were very real challenges involving the length of the deal, the number of weeks/games, the NFL’s desire to have us produce the games and also simulcast on the NFL Network, and our desire for a piece of the post-season schedule. Importantly, any bid submitted by ESPN would necessarily include a significant financial contribution by affiliates. In less than 48 hours, we turned around a pair of proposals for first the network’s, and then the NFL’s, consideration. The first package covered 5 seasons, 8 games per season and an affiliate contribution of over $138 million. The second package also covered 5 seasons, 8 games per season in years 1-2, 16 games per season plus a wildcard play-off game in years 3-5, and an affiliate contribution of over $238 million. It was understood that ABC’s owned-stations and the network itself would add their own significant financial contributions to the final bid. It turned out that we were not even in the ballpark as CBS bid $275 million for a one-year deal involving 8 games and a promise by CBS to use its top production staff and talent, not just for the 8 games on CBS but for the 8 games on the NFL Network as well. CBS further agreed to what was a clear deal-breaker for ABC affiliates: a simulcast on the NFL Network. And perhaps what was most perplexing to our working group, the CBS deal included a one-way option exercisable solely by the NFL for a second year. From start to finish, the deal was completed in just six weeks. It was a disappointing result for ABC affiliates that once again underscored the challenges associated with acquiring high-profile sports properties.
Robin Roberts, Good Morning America co-anchor and proud ESPN alum, once said that George Bodenheimer’s development of a “culture of people, passion, and non-stop innovation made ESPN one of the biggest business success stories in American history.” It was a pleasure to observe his management style while regularly working with George during my service on the Board of Governors of the ABC-TV Affiliates Association. We worked especially close during my term as Chairman, and later on while serving as the board’s liaison to ESPN for all “ESPN on ABC” programming. Those roles enabled me to meet and interact with countless members of George’s dedicated executive team over the years, including John Skipper (who succeeded George as President of ESPN and Co-Chairman of the Disney Media Networks from 2012-17), Norby Williamson (Executive SVP of Production), John Wildhack (former EVP of Programming who left ESPN in July 2016 to become the Athletic Director at his alma mater, Syracuse University), Burke Magnus (EVP of Programming & Scheduling), Justin Connolly (EVP of Affiliate Sales & Marketing), Rosa Gatti (the trailblazing SVP of Communications & Corporate Outreach who retired in 2013 after 33 years at ESPN), Sean Bratches (longtime EVP of Sales & Marketing who now serves as Managing Director, Commercial Operations for Formula 1), Ed Erhardt (President of Global Sales & Marketing), Laura Gentile (now Sr VP of espnW and Women’s Initiatives), Rob Simmelkjaer (who left ESPN in 2011 to become SVP of NBC Sports Ventures), the late Loren Matthews (who retired in 2006 as ABC Sports’ SVP of Programming), Dave Brown (my “go to” guy for all things college football after Loren Matthews’ retirement), Len DeLuca & Tag Garson (they were on point for the “ESPN on ABC” transition and both now work at IMG), Christine Driessen (EVP and Chief Financial Officer), Ed Durso (EVP of Administration who retired in 2017) and John Walsh (considered by many to be “The Godfather of ESPN” and who was one of its most influential executives before retiring in 2015).
It wasn’t always work, as on a more personal note George and his family were a delight to spend time with at events such as Super Bowl XL, ESPYs and ESPYs Golf Classics, and The V Foundation events through the years. George made special trips to Des Moines in June 2007 and Cedar Rapids in October 2010 to appear before groups where he shared his thoughts on entrepreneurship, risk, and the birth and growth of ESPN. It was especially fun to join George for golf games with athletes and/or ESPN talent such as Ben Roethlisberger, Ron Jaworski, and Trent Dilfer, and business contacts of George’s which included Mark King (adidas Group North America and TaylorMade), Harry Rhoads (Washington Speakers Bureau), and Kevin Plank (Under Armour). Coincidentally, George was named to the Under Armour board of directors in August 2014. At the time of the announcement, Kevin Plank said, “(George’s) pioneering vision and his experience building and leading a global sports media brand will bring important perspective and expertise to our company as we continue to expand the UA brand globally.”
The curtain is pulled back on the ESPN success story in George’s book titled Every Town is a Sports Town (Grand Central Publishing, a Division of Hachette – 2015) which he wrote with bestselling author Donald T. Phillips. Mike Krzyzewski, Basketball Coach for Duke University and the USA Men’s National Team, said this about the book: “A wonderful story of how ESPN became #1 and stayed there for three decades. Teamwork can work just as well in business as it does in sports.” It meant a lot when George presented a copy of the book to me with the following personal note on the inside cover: “To a world-class sports fan and even better friend. Lots of good times working on ESPN – ABC. Thanks for everything and best to you and Susan.” George’s post-ESPN life includes chairing a significant fundraising campaign for The V Foundation, and all the proceeds from the sale of his book are being donated to the foundation.
In May 2015, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) presented George with their Sports Lifetime Achievement Award citing the many ways he helped change the landscape of sports broadcasting. Bob Mauro, President of NATAS said, “Working his way up from the mailroom, George Bodenheimer became its longest-tenured President while leading ESPN to an unprecedented period of global growth. His guiding hand in a multiplicity of new networks and platforms has made ESPN synonymous with sports content ‘anytime and anywhere.’ The National Academy is delighted to bestow this well-deserved honor to him.” Later that year in August 2015, George was named a Disney Legend as part of an awards program honoring individuals who have contributed greatly to the world of entertainment and the Disney legacy. George Lucas and Susan Lucci were among the members of the program’s Class of 2015 who were honored alongside George. “Their vision and dedication to their work have brought joy to audiences around the globe and earned them a place in Disney history,” said Disney Chairman and CEO, Bob Iger.
George Bodenheimer is a caring and visionary leader, genuine sports television legend and WINNER who was a privilege to work alongside, and someone I’ll always take great pride in calling my friend.
UPDATE (12/20/17): On December 18, 2017, John Skipper announced that he had resigned from his duties as President of ESPN. He said in a statement that “I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction. I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem.” While the news came as a shock to those of us who knew John, the decision to put his health first was clearly the right one. It was simultaneously announced by Bob Iger that George Bodenheimer would come out of retirement, having agreed “to serve as acting Chair of ESPN for 90 days to provide interim leadership, help me identify and secure John’s successor, and ensure a smooth transition.” It was Bob Iger’s good fortune that he had George in a position to take on this role, as there was not a more effective leader – or better person – to carry out the stated mission.
UPDATE (3/20/18): On March 5, 2018, James “Jimmy” Pitaro was announced as the next President of ESPN. He was well known within the Disney organization where he had been serving as the chairman of the consumer products and interactive division. “Jimmy forged his career at the intersection of technology, sports and media, and his vast experience and keen perspective will be invaluable in taking ESPN in to the future,” Bob Iger said. At a town hall meeting with his new staff in Bristol on March 14, Jimmy acknowledged both the challenges and opportunities that lied ahead saying, “The strategy this team has put in place is incredibly smart in terms of not fighting disruption but rather embracing it and saying ‘Okay, what are we doing about it?’” It was also announced that George Bodenheimer would remain as a consultant to Jimmy and the company through the end of the year.
It didn’t take long for the ebb and flow nature of rights negotiations to resurface early on in the new Pitaro regime. On March 17, 2018 an advisory was sent out to ABC affiliates informing them that “2018 will be the final year of IndyCar Series races broadcast on ABC, including the Indianapolis 500.” In an email the following day, I expressed my thoughts on this development to Jimmy, Ben Sherwood and other members of their senior leadership teams at ESPN and ABC, respectively: “The loss of the Indy 500 is noteworthy given its long and storied history on ABC dating back to 1965. In point of fact, it’s the 2nd longest relationship between a major sporting event and a television network, topped only by CBS’ relationship with the Masters which dates back to 1956.” In fairness, ESPN had been signaling to the Board of Governors for some months that the economics of an IndyCar rights deal weighted so heavily on one major race no longer made sense. But it was a nonetheless melancholy occasion for ABC affiliates, especially when viewed against the backdrop of similar fates involving other major sports properties in recent years. There were several replies to my aforementioned email, including one from Jimmy himself in which he optimistically stated, “I too am looking forward to the future and identifying new and impactful opportunities for our businesses.” From Bodenheimer to Skipper and now Pitaro, such a challenge has been the constant in ESPN’s relationship with the ABC broadcast network and it will be fascinating to see what the future of that relationship – and sports television itself – holds.
Every Town Is A Sports Town by George Bodenheimer with Donald T. Phillips (Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group 2015)
Reynolds, Mike (June 6, 2011) “Olympics Draws Top Players, Bearing Bids” Multichannel News
Lafayette, John (June 13, 2011). “Still Running Rings Around the Competition” Broadcasting & Cable
Scott, David (March 14, 2018). “Jimmy Pitaro Meets ESPN Colleagues” Retrieved from www.espnfrontrow.com
Miller, James Andrew (March 15, 2018). “John Skipper Details His ESPN Exit and a Cocaine Extortion Plot” Retrieved from www.hollywoodreporter.com
Steinberg, Brian (March 27, 2018). “ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro on Cord-Cutting, New Takes on Sports Coverage and the NFL” Retrieved from www.variety.com
Media Releases –
(April 20, 2004). “Anne Sweeney, George Bodenheimer Named Co-Chairs of Disney’s Media Networks Unit” The Walt Disney Company
(February 13, 2011). “ESPN Statement Concerning FIFA World Cup TV Rights” ESPN Media Zone
(February 11, 2015). “Sports Cable Industry Pioneer and Former ESPN President George Bodenheimer to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award at the 36th Annual Sports Emmy Awards” The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
(April 20, 2015). “Sean Bratches to Depart ESPN at End of 2015” ESPN Media Zone
(May 17, 2016). “NFL Wild Card Playoff Game Will Return to ESPN and ABC” ESPN Media Zone