ESPN chief George Bodenheimer has spent most of 2004 and the first half of 2005 celebrating. Last year, ESPN was feted from coast to coast as the sports network marked its 25th anniversary. In the fall of 2004, Bodenheimer was inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame. He was given the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s coveted Vanguard Award in April. And he is receiving the Promax Century Award this week.
Bodenheimer’s titles are actually president of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, and chairman of the ESPN board of directors. This is all the more impressive because, just as in a Hollywood movie, he started at ESPN in the mailroom back in 1981. (His official bio says he began in the “administration department.”)
No matter. Bodenheimer now presides over what is one of the nation’s most potent brands. There are the networks: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN Desportes, ESPN Classic and more. There are the magazine, the radio network and the Web site. There are even the sports bars. In 2003, The Sporting News named him “the most powerful person in sports.” Bodenheimer is more modest about himself. “We’re very proud of what we built,” he says. But he emphasizes, “It’s not about me. It’s about 4,000 people who work here” in Bristol, Conn., where ESPN is headquartered.
His employees are loyal to an executive known to send notes to them asking about a sick family member. He is also prone to engaging in the kind of horseplay ESPN’s promo campaigns highlight.
Under his watch, ESPN has led the way with the new ESPN Digital Center, one of the world’s largest high-definition television facilities. And he has landed programming agreements with virtually every major professional sports association that exists, including, of course, the NFL. In 2006, ESPN becomes the home of ABC’s Monday Night Football, a cable migration the whole media world is waiting for.
Outside of ESPN, Bodenheimer has been an influence on the cable business itself. He chaired the marketing committee for the NCTA’s On Time Guarantee, the cable industry’s most important effort to turn its bad-service image around in a hurry. He still serves on the boards of the NCTA, Cable in the Classroom and the V Foundation for Cancer Research, which ESPN founded with late basketball coach Jim Valvano, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1992.
“He’s a great leader in terms of organizational dynamics,” says Chuck Pagano, ESPN’s senior VP of technology, engineering and operations. “He focuses on doing what’s best for the organization without losing sight of the human element.” Still, Pagano says, Bodenheimer is the boss: “He’s honest, and he tells you what he’s thinking—even if it’s not always what you want to hear.”
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Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.