Playing for Keeps

Jack Williams plays to win. It's not every guy who walks off the golf links and into the presidency of a sports network. In 1997, Williams took the helm of Comcast SportsNet, which had one market: Philadelphia. Since then, Williams has tripled his portfolio. Comcast SportsNet has launched in a second market, Washington-Baltimore, and will debut a third this fall in Chicago.

And no one is more surprised than Williams.

The kid from rural Oklahoma could see himself as a coach, not a CEO. Born on a farm in the Oklahoma panhandle, Williams moved "into town" at six, the first time his family enjoyed electricity and indoor plumbing. The athletic youngster played sports in high school but was sidelined by injury. Williams just switched gears. He was invited into the broadcast booth as a "spotter."

Consider it serendipity.

It earned him a part-time stint at Guymon's KGYN(AM) as a sports announcer. The 1,000-W station signed off at sundown, but the gig continued until Williams graduated from high school. He continued calling games in college.

In 1963, he moved on to KLIV(FM) in Liberal, Kan., where he became a disk jockey and manager at the top-40/rock-'n'-roll station. There was a burgeoning cable-TV company in the region, TelePromTer, which carried 12 channels but had programming only for six. Williams suggested broadcasting the audio of football games on one of them. Management liked the idea and Williams but put both on the back burner.

By 1967, Williams was on TelePromTer's radar. He got a call from an executive who hired him to manage the Oklahoma system. The DJ became TelePromTer's general manager. Armed with a surveillance-style camera to which he added a zoom lens, Williams started producing sports, graduations, and parades.

Three years later, TelePromTer moved Williams to New York to head national programming for 17 systems nationwide. Privately, he feared his boss would discover he was clueless. His fears were unfounded. In 1972, Warner Cable tapped him to help launch the STAR channel, the first pay-TV movie channel in the country.

"I seemed to be good at it," he says modestly. "I was driven. I still am."

That drive underscores a theme in Williams's career: He's adept at nascent efforts. His talent was noticed by Ed Snider, founder of Spectacor, a sports and entertainment group that would later merge with Comcast. Snider tapped Williams to help develop Philadelphia-based Prism, a regional sports-and-entertainment network that was the first premium channel to have 24-hour entertainment programming.

But sports beckoned. In 1986, he moved on to Sports- Channel, a chain of regional networks then in five major markets. He left for the West Coast two years later to serve as president of Z channel, a Spectacor regional sports-and-entertainment network in Los Angeles.

In 1989, Snider recruited Williams to spearhead conversion of Philly radio station WIP(AM) to an all-sports format as chairman and CEO of Spectacor Broadcasting. Subsequently promoted to president of Spectacor Management Group, he departed in '94 for semi-retirement in Scottsdale, Ariz., content with consulting work and golf.

His retirement was short-lived. In 1997, Comcast chief Brian Roberts called and asked him to "build the best regional sports network you can."

Williams complied, ably assisted by his staff, he says.

Indeed, he considers a gift for hiring capable people his greatest asset. "I give them the freedom to do their job," he says, "and have enough sense to stay out of their way."