When Steve Bornstein steps down next spring from his post atop the NFL’s media operations, he will leave a mark on the sports TV business that few others can rival. “While no one wants to follow someone as accomplished as Steve—his track record speaks for itself—no one wants to take over a leaky ship,” says NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp, who will succeed Bornstein as executive VP. “He’s handing over an organization that’s been successful.”
Successful would be an understatement, as the NFL is among the most powerful brands in America. A significant share of credit for its rise goes to Bornstein, who, when tackling the NFL role, drew on his experience building ESPN from a badminton-and-truck-pulls also-ran to a media powerhouse.
“I really thought that the league was in a transitional phase where they wanted to build and own their assets,” Bornstein says. “I couldn’t think of a more exciting opportunity than to do ESPN all over again.” Since the 2003 launch (the network’s 10th anniversary is on Nov. 4), the NFL Network has inked deals with every major distributor, secured a full-season slate of live games and was the youngest network ever to win a Sports Emmy (with only 58 days on the air).
One of Bornstein’s first moves was to hire a face that viewers would know, eventually opting for one that he, too, was familiar with. He brought Rich Eisen on board to go against SportsCenter, the franchise for which Bornstein had previously tapped Eisen as anchor. “He’s smart enough to hire me twice,” Eisen quips. “When you’re given an opportunity to be the tip of the spear of the No. 1 brand in American sports, and Steve Bornstein is the one who is putting the spear in your hand, that’s a no-brainer.”
The challenge in those early years—it wasn’t until 2006 that the network began airing live games—was, “How do you turn a 16-game schedule into a 52-weeks-a-year compelling product?” says Howard Katz, the league’s senior VP of broadcasting and media operations and COO of NFL Films. Bornstein’s programming expertise made that question seem entirely answerable.
“You could get all the distribution you wanted using the NFL, but unless you had good content and knew how to produce it and talk to the fan intelligently, it was irrelevant,” Rolapp says. “He was smart enough to know that.”
Bornstein also played a central role in securing, in December 2011, the landmark nine-year extensions with CBS, Fox and NBC that will keep the league on broadcast television through the 2022 season. The monster pacts came just three months after he sewed up an eight-year agreement to keep Monday Night Football on ESPN until 2021. Those four deals, which kick in next year, will grow TV revenue from $725 million per year to about $1.1 billion.
“The landmark TV deals that the NFL has accomplished, the growth of the league’s media business— that’s all been Steve,” says Katz, who also worked with Bornstein at ESPN. “Anybody who has ever negotiated with Steve will tell you he’s one of the toughest— fair, but toughest—negotiators in the business.”
Rolapp credits Bornstein with driving home the idea of creating unique media packages for the NFL’s TV partners “so that they could have something they could call their own.”
“Dealings at that level with that much at stake, you want to be able to deal with people who you trust and have a good relationship with,” says ESPN chairman George Bodenheimer, who succeeded Bornstein as ESPN’s president in 1998. “Check off both of those boxes with Steve.”
Bornstein spent 22 years with ESPN and ABC, developing the former into the justifiably self-touted “Worldwide Leader” that powers the latter’s coverage. “He turned ESPN from a single-sport cable network into the biggest, strongest sports brand in the world,” Katz says.
Bornstein joined ESPN when it was a three-month-old startup. “We were writing the book as we went along,” he says. He had a meteoric rise at the network, becoming its youngest president and CEO at age 38, and was instrumental in expanding its platforms and assets. “[He] acquired programming [NFL, college football] that put ESPN on the map,” Katz says. Bornstein later became president of ABC Sports (1996), chairman and CEO of ESPN (1998) and president of ABC (1999).
Bodenheimer, who joined the fledgling ESPN not long after Bornstein, recalls one specific moment during their shared time at the network that seems particularly telling. They were working out how to celebrate the start of the 21st century and wound up developing SportsCentury. The series about the people and athletic events that defined sports in North America throughout the 1900s won a Peabody Award.
“His leadership as we were thinking through what to do and how stands out in my mind as one of his shining moments,” Bodenheimer says.
In July, Bornstein decided he would end his tenure with the league when his contract expires next spring. “The time seemed about right,” Bornstein says. “We’ve gotten just about every objective that we started out to over 10 years ago.” Last year, Bornstein orchestrated long-awaited distribution deals with Cablevision and Time Warner Cable—key holdouts serving high-visibility markets such as New York and Los Angeles—to give NFL Network availability with every major MSO.
While Bornstein is stepping away, don’t expect this to be the the final chapter of his storied career. “He still has way too much to offer,” Katz says.
“I’ve got lots of ideas,” Bornstein says. “I won’t be retiring, but I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.” If his career is any indication, Bornstein’s next move will move the chains.
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