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Fifth Estater: Fox Sports President Eric Shanks

It seems as though Eric Shanks’ whole life has revolved around sports. After growing up outside the small town of Brazil, Ind., Shanks went to Indiana University, where he worked for—and got hollered at by—legendary coach Bob Knight. He moved to New York to work for CBS Sports after he’d missed too many IU classes while covering the Lillehammer Olympics as an intern for the network. He even met his wife, Brenda, at the 1999 Super Bowl in Miami.

The 38-year-old Shanks, now president of Fox Sports, is probably the youngest person to be named head of a network sports division. Brett Favre even has two years on him.

Shanks returned to Fox Sports in June after six years with DirecTV, where he was executive VP for entertainment. But after starting his TV sports career with CBS, he jumped to Fox in 1994 as it was gearing up to broadcast NFL football.

And that was when he first met David Hill, now chairman and CEO of the Fox Sports Media Group. There was a pre-season game in New Orleans the network used to get the staff ready for the season.

“Almost everybody from Fox went down,” Shanks recalls. “We ended up actually rehearsing, but most of the time was spent on Bourbon Street. Fox really came together that night on Bourbon Street, which I don’t think ended until the sun came up.”

Shanks won six Emmys at Fox Sports. He produced The Best Damn Sports Show Period, and helped developed the yellow electronic first-down line that became a staple of football broadcasts, as well as the glowing puck that blazed briefly when Fox televised the NHL. Now, he wants to rekindle some of the spirit of the early days from his first stint at Fox.

“I think I’m the guy who can kind of come back and have that fresh in my memory and provide maybe a little boost of energy, a little boost of that old ‘Same Game, New Attitude’ here,” he says, recalling the audacious slogan Fox had when it jumped into sports.

Hill thinks Shanks is the right guy for the job. “Eric Shanks taking up the leadership role at Fox Sports is re-energizing the entire division,” Hill says. “With so much change happening in our industry, he’s the ideal executive to lead the group. Eric has spent the last 15 years gaining experience in production, programming, interactive and enhanced TV services, both at Fox and at DirecTV, and these are areas we need to focus on if we’re going to remain an industry leader.”

Shanks calls Hill a mentor, and he’s happy to acknowledge that Hill has never hollered at him the way Coach Knight once did.

“There’s always some new idea coming out of his curly white-haired head,” Shanks says of Hill. But he adds that “for as colorful as he is, you’ll see that there is a discipline to how you approach production, how you approach talent and how you approach management. You might not see that every day if you’re not around David that often, but you do learn to be very disciplined, and once you have the basics down that gives you the ability to take chances, to create buzz, to try new things.”

Fox Sports faces challenges as a broadcast outlet at a time when rights fees are climbing. “It is expensive,” Shanks says, adding that the value of sports is rising as well in a landscape filled with distractions from cable, the Internet, DVRs and personal media devices. “Sports becomes really the only true product that brings people together at the same time, all in front of their TV sets,” he adds.

Though his parents have moved away from where he was born, Shanks, his wife and their two young children plan to go back to Indiana this month for his high school reunion. He won’t be the only guy there with a cool job.

“There are guys in my high school class who work in coal mines,” he says. “They get to use dynamite and blow stuff up.”

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Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.