Jim Burnette: 'Everyone Knows Jimmy'

One of the biggest draws of working in the television industry is the big payday that can come with the right job. And it was the promise of a $312-per-year salary boost that launched Jim Burnette's storied ad sales career.

When Burnette got out of the Marine Corps in 1966, he had been offered a job at Chase Manhattan for $90 a week. Sitting in a local bar after getting the offer, a friend told him he should go work at ABC.

Burnette didn't even know what ABC was, but his buddy had a brother-in-law who worked there. Burnette looked into it and got a job offer—for $96 a week. He took the money.

“So, for six bucks I went to ABC not knowing what I was doing,” he laughs.

Forty-one years later, the EVP of sports strategy at Fox knows exactly what he is doing now: retiring. And he does so having made quite a name for himself in the world of television ad sales.

“Babe, Pele, Bono, Dave and Madonna: When you only need one name for everyone to know who you are, that's legend status,” says Fox Sports Chairman David Hill. “In the television sales world, everyone knows Jimmy.”

A New York native, Burnette served with the Marines in Japan and North Carolina before taking the job at ABC. Working with young programming executives by the names of Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, Burnette learned the business of television from the financial side. Diller and Eisner needed his department's approval for programming.

Burnette began to do some work in sports as part of his job and was involved in the first-ever Monday Night Football game in 1970. He left for two years to work at an ad agency as a buyer, but returned to ABC in 1975 and eventually moved into sports ad sales. In 1981, he was head of news sales when the network launched Nightline.

The next year, Burnette jumped to NBC to get back into sports full time; he also took over sales duties for the news department and the Today show five years later.

At NBC, Burnette was part of the team that put the National Basketball Association back on the map. NBC had just lost Major League Baseball in 1989, so it put its efforts behind the NBA.

And to monetize the league, which had rebounded from a bad spell with the help of stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Burnette and his team focused on the automotive market and bringing in the foreign automakers. They revamped the sales efforts from eight units a game to 16, and sold mini-exclusivities within quarters of each game. NBC also kept main rivals separate so that Ford and General Motors were never in the same game.

Those strategies gave NBC a $400 million base from which to launch its new basketball package. “CBS had been selling it the same way forever, so we had a different approach,” he remembers.

In 1992, Burnette joined marketing company Dorna USA and was part of another advertising development in the U.S.—rotating signage. Imported from a practice in Spain, Dorna was able to put multiple companies behind home plate at baseball games and courtside at basketball contests.

In 1994, he joined upstart network Fox to sell its new package of NFL football games. With Fox still building its national footprint of stations, he would often get questions about how it could replicate the reach of CBS. At the time, he wasn't even sure himself.

“I just kept saying, 'I'm sure there's a plan I'm not aware of or Mr. Murdoch wouldn't have put a billion dollars into the NFL,'” he says.

Today, Burnette says the job of selling is basically the same as it was when he started more than 40 years ago; there is just more to do.

“When I started in 1966, everything was a 60-second commercial; there were three networks and there was a ton of cigarette money,” he says. “Whenever a dramatic change happened like [30-second spots], the marketplace just responds.”

Now as he steps away, Burnette says he leaves at a time when sports are an even more lucrative property than ever because they are largely TiVo-proof, and big events like the Super Bowl and Daytona 500 still guarantee mass audiences. And he says those big-ticket events (Fox has the World Series, Super Bowl, college football's Bowl Championship Series and the Daytona 500 this season) are crucial to propping up the rest of the business.

“Having a big event opens the door; then you can talk about everything else,” he says. “You build the pyramid from the top down.”

One thing he won't miss is relatives thinking he can fix all that is wrong with television. “My mother would say to me, 'Could you do something about what Donohue just said?'” he laughs.

And now Burnette hopes to get back to being a sports fan. He grew up a fan of the New York Giants, but lost that affinity when he began selling football.

“You become a ratings fan, so if I had an allegiance to a team, it would be Dallas,” he says, because the Cowboys are historically a huge ratings draw. “Now I can go back to hopefully being a Giants fan and sharing the moment with people instead of asking to turn on the other game to see if it is close.”

In sports sales, the ideal game gets settled in the last play of a close contest between two big-market teams. You don't want it to go to overtime because then you start pre-empting other programming, and that comes with costs.

So, will Burnette finally be able to sit back and enjoy the next stirring Giants' overtime win? That is still going to take some time.

“I'll just take a Giants' victory,” he says. “I'm still sensitive to overtime. I mean, it's been 41 years.” 

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