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The Sporting News

Jan. 6, 2004 10:50 p.m.

A wide shot: elegant Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Advertising big shots, journalists and guest panelists such as NBA legend Bill Russell arrive for the third annual ESPN up-front presentation, at which the network celebrates with, and sells itself to, media buyers and opinion makers.



Zoom in: downstairs, into the greenroom, behind that closed door. There, in a restroom, John Saunders, Bob Ley and Chris Berman chat, talk sports and briefly relax. Most ESPN viewers -- and aren't we all, at some point, ESPN viewers? -- would love to eavesdrop here.


But for anyone interested in truly understanding ESPN, the most compelling conversation in the building is back in the greenroom. Scan past Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert Johnson and advertising guru Dan Weiden to those chairs against the wall where a man discusses sotto voce the future of television with Stephen Burke, president of Comcast, the leading cable operator in the country.



Meet ESPN president George Bodenheimer, the most powerful person in the room, the building and, by the Sporting News' measure, in all of sports for 2003: No. 1 in the Power 100, our annual ranking of sports industry heavyweights.



Unlike a certain other George whom TSN ranked numero uno last year, Bodenheimer doesn't constantly remind you that he's the boss. In fact, his power style is the polar opposite of George Steinbrenner's. Bodenheimer, who was ranked fourth last year, doesn't dominate a room -- he can be so soft-spoken that his conversations can't be heard two feet away.


Ask ESPN senior vice president for consumer communication Chris LaPlaca for a Bodenheimer press kit, and he'll confess that there isn't one because Bodenheimer is oft-quoted on business matters but rarely profiled. Spend an hour in Bodenheimer's modestly decorated office, and he'll flood you with quotes reflecting an unstinting "we, not me" attitude.



But don't underestimate Bodenheimer, who started at ESPN in 1981 by driving mail around the Bristol, Conn., complex and picking up tapes and talent at the airport. Beneath his nice-guy smile and sense of humor, says senior vice president John Walsh, is someone "who can be demanding and make tough decisions, someone who understands that everything doesn't go the way you hoped it would." He is, senior V.P. Lee Ann Daly says, extremely thorough, doesn't assume he knows everything and never leaves a meeting until he "understands it all."



Says NBA commissioner David Stern, himself a former No. 1 in the Power 100: "He's a good manager who understands the evolution and history of his company as well as any CEO in the country."



Bodenheimer, who took that first job in Bristol after being rejected by every major league baseball team and Madison Square Garden, got promoted to affiliate sales when he was the only staffer willing to move to Texas. He moved up the ESPN ladder, adding affiliate marketing and then all sales and marketing before becoming president in 1998.



Bodenheimer's low-profile style has worked well, as has his push to make sure ESPN is an innovative risk taker both on screen and off. "He respects the traditions of ESPN but is fearless about moving forward, which he has made a mandate of his regime," says Walsh.



Bodenheimer's relentless multiplatform brand-building has made ESPN the lifeline of the American sports fan more than ever, reportedly reaching 90 million fans a week. Bodenheimer gained our top spot by continually extending ESPN's reach in ways large and small.



"George has coalesced his power," says Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm Sports Corp., "and he has growing influence within the TV -- and especially the cable -- world."



In October 2002, ESPN became the first network with simultaneous contracts to televise all four major professional sports: the NBA, NHL, NFL and major league baseball. From August to March, its programming schedule is dotted with major-college football and basketball. In 2003, it added Wimbledon tennis, doubled its coverage of the NCAA women's basketball tournament and returned to televising baseball's playoffs. ESPN's original programming continues to develop, ranging from the controversial NFL-based drama Playmakers (more on that later) to ESPN2's new morning show, Cold Pizza.



ESPN scored its most-viewed quarter in network history from July to September, followed by single-month ratings records in October for both ESPN and ESPN2. (The ratings boost was aided by outside factors -- Boston and Chicago in baseball's playoffs and the LeBron James circus -- that may not be replicated next year.)


In November, a Cowboys-Patriots Sunday night game drew the third-biggest ESPN audience ever and the fifth-biggest in basic-cable history. ESPN won nine sports Emmys in 2003, its most since 1996. ESPN: The Magazine is approaching 2 million circulation and won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. ESPN.com keeps breaking its own records as the Internet's most-trafficked sports website, scoring 16.7 million unique users in October.



But Bodenheimer's dynamic business plan manifests itself in many ways that are less obvious. "Technological excellence and leadership are as important to the future growth of ESPN and our brand as the product we put on the air," he says. In 2003, the company introduced ESPN Pay-Per-View; ESPN Motion, a newly enhanced video technology now employed on its website, and ESPN HD, a 24/7 high-definition simulcast service that industry insiders credit with helping jump-start sluggish HDTV sales.



ESPN also is increasingly ambitious about maximizing its licensing potential, hoping to double retail sales by adding staff and moving beyond the typical hawking of T-shirts and caps. The past year witnessed the birth of ESPN DVDs, ESPN Golf Schools, X Games Skateparks and ESPN Videogames.



But wait, there's more ... Bodenheimer was promoted in 2003 to the head of ABC Sports. He now oversees Monday Night Football, coverage of The NBA Finals and, between ESPN and ABC, the TV rights to virtually every college football bowl game.



With that kind of power, of course, comes great headaches. "The power opens doors, but it raises the bar," Bodenheimer says. "People don't expect you to stumble."



And yet one key to Bodenheimer's success is being adept at recovering from stumbles. (A notable exception was ESPN's hiring radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who was "unhired" after his racially charged comments about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb; the Limbaugh saga was misplayed from start to finish.)



When ESPN's ratings declined sharply two years ago, Bodenheimer expanded into original programming such as the talk show Pardon the Interruption and the made-for-TV movie The Junction Boys to right the ship.



ABC's rookie NBA telecasts were poorly rated and widely considered inferior to the production by NBC, the previous over-the-air rights holder, so Bodenheimer signed the esteemed Mike Pearl away from Turner Sports to run the show. When Turner outwooed ABC for ex-coach/analyst Doug Collins, Bodenheimer and Pearl persuaded superstar Al Michaels to add the NBA to his regular duties on Monday Night Football. Stern is "very pleased" with the way Bodenheimer navigated the bumpy road. "George's approach is very calm and considered," Stern says. "He is not given to knee-jerk reactions, but over time he makes a decision and makes it happen."



Bodenheimer must decide soon about the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman predicted the league's upcoming TV contract again will net $600 million, but Bodenheimer insists he won't overspend just to keep all four leagues on his menu. "That (large rights fee) happened because the moon and stars all aligned," he says. "We don't need hockey. Our brand is big enough to carry the company forward with an evolving mix of products."



Perception-wise, Bodenheimer's handling of Playmakers, whose plot lines infuriated the NFL and prompted Gatorade to pull its ads, is an even bigger power play. Bodenheimer didn't back down during the show's run but is biding his time on its future, acknowledging that he may have to capitulate to sports' most powerful league.


"I listen to everyone's point of view," he says. "The show was a flat-out hit, and there's no evidence that it hurt NFL ratings. But I must not only respect their opinion. I must take it into account. They're my partner." (Meantime, be forewarned, commissioner Stern: He has Spike Lee developing a dramatic basketball series.)



But the gravest challenge to Bodenheimer's power comes off screen, where a lengthy, ongoing and unsettled battle with cable operators over fees they pay per subscriber to ESPN has reached a fever pitch.



Several operators, including Comcast and particularly Cox, have become outspoken about rejecting ESPN's rate hikes. Cox's ESPN deal expires in March, and the company is threatening to drop ESPN or move it to a premium sports tier that viewers pay for separately. But ESPN likely would recapture many Cox subscribers via satellite providers such as DirecTV.



Even Comcast's Burke acknowledged at ESPN's up-front presentation that "no programming is more important" than sports, and Comcast doesn't want to lose viewers to satellite providers. Bodenheimer is frustrated by Cox executives' media maneuvering and has begun characteristically returning fire. "Cox has chosen to make this a public negotiation," says Bodenheimer, asserting that there's room for compromise on price increases but that he won't allow ESPN to be shifted to a premium tier.


ESPN needs cable companies' fees and the ad revenue from being on basic cable to afford the leagues' rights fees, and ESPN's deals with the NHL, NFL and MLB are, like the operators' contracts, expiring in the next two years. If Cox goes over the brink, Bodenheimer says, then he will, too. "I hope to work something out. But for the future of our business, we must remain part of basic cable."



The far-reaching effects of the subscriber-fees disagreement notwithstanding, that future looks bright. In 2004, the company will tap the Latino market with ESPN Deportes, a 24-hour Spanish-language network. ESPN will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a massive "Season of the Fan" marketing campaign and 35 hours of original programming. And if there's anyone who has the juice to juggle all those ESPN and ABC balls while getting his executives to take chances and while resolving sticky issues, it is George Bodenheimer.



No. 1 | 2-10 | 11-40 | Best of rest | 13 to watch


Stuart Miller, who ranks the Power 100, is a free-lance writer based in New York.

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