‘The Diplomacy of a Good Sport’

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George Bodenheimer ’80, ESPN President

This week, ESPN President George Bodenheimer ’80 was the featured interviewee of “The Monday Interview” in London’s Financial Times. (To read the article, you can go to www.ft.com and register for free limited access to the publication.)

Written by Matthew Garrahan and David Gelles, the article, titled “The Diplomacy of a Good Sport,” highlights Bodenheimer’s rise at ESPN. He is the company’s longest serving executive, and over the past 30 years, he has seen it expand dramatically by embracing innovation and change.

“It’s a competitive culture [here] and it’s a strength,” Bodenheimer says in the story of ESPN, which is based in Bristol, Conn. “I believe it’s the most important thing in the company.”

After graduating from Denison with a degree in economics, Bodenheimer began work with ESPN in 1981. He worked in the company’s mailroom, and really, it was the perfect start. By delivering mail to company employees, he was able to meet just about everybody.

Bodenheimer, who wanted to work in sports and entertainment, landed the job after a friend of his father’s, who worked for CBS, mentioned cable television to him. He went through an intimidating interview with the director of human resources at ESPN, then landed his first job with the company.

From there, he worked his way up. In 1982, he took a sales and marketing job in Texas where he was selling ESPN to local cable operators in five states across the Southwest.

“I would make three calls a day and would pull into a town for an appointment,” Bodenheimer says in the article. “Many times they were these mom and pop operations. They would say: ‘You know George, [ESPN] is a crazy idea. But this is a sports town so it might work.’ ”

Bodenheimer told the Financial Times those sales pitches taught him that every American town—and every city in the world, for that matter—sees itself as a sports town. ESPN, he says, plays at this idea.

In 1986, Bodenheimer was appointed executive vice president of sales and marketing, and in 1998, he became the company’s fifth president. In addition to his position with ESPN, Bodenheimer serves as president of ABC Sports and as co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. All three entities are affiliates of the Walt Disney Company, and The Sporting News has recognized him as the “Most Powerful Person in Sports.”

ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol have a close-knit, family feel to them, the article says, but the company is no small-time operation. In Bodenheimer’s time with the company, it has spread across the country and beyond, with the rights to some Premier League and FA Cup football matches in the UK and 13 local versions of SportsCenter in eight languages. All of this is managed from Bristol, where the company has more than 5,000 employees.

In the Financial Times interview, Bodenheimer also talks about the ways in which ESPN has and continues to progress. The company, for instance, is embracing new technology, jumping on board with the current iPhone and iPad craze. They recently released an app that allows subscribers of some cable operators to watch ESPN on their iPhones and iPads.

The journalists—Garrahan and Gelles—also note Bodenheimer’s diplomatic nature. When asked about his favorite sport and favorite team, Bodenheimer showed no favoritism. “I enjoy all of them,” he said. “I’m a fan of all teams.”

And how could the president of ESPN—the world’s biggest sports television network—answer any differently?

Emily Hopcian ’12 is an English and communication major from Novi, Mich.

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