Four-letter man: ESPN’s Bodenheimer talks sports

George Bodenheimer, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports, visited Catawba County on Tuesday. He was the guest at the Hickory Sportsman’s Club’s second meeting of 2011 at Rock Barn Golf and Spa.
During his time in Hickory, Bodenheimer was interviewed by the press about a variety of topics, from sports to broadcasting to his career at ESPN.
Q: Who is your favorite broadcaster?
A: Probably Keith Jackson. He spent many years at ABC and hosted college football for a number of years. He did a wonderful job.
Q: A couple of years ago, Fox had the BCS Bowl games. Then they switched to ESPN and ABC. Many football fans are looking for a college football playoff. Are you involved in that, do you have any say-so in that and what is your opinion?
A: We are involved in that we are the larger carrier of college football throughout the season. Now, we have the BCS. So, we are involved in that sense. We don’t have a say in the matter. That is up to the university presidents. In my opinion, we are here to televise the system, the college and university presidents set up. If they decide to have a playoff, we will televise it.
Q: When the bid for the NCAA basketball tournament came up, it seemed that ESPN was on the inside track to get the rights. CBS and TNT teamed up together to get that. Were you surprised or did you think you won the rights?
A: I thought we were close and the money was close. I think they exceeded our bid. CBS has a track record for the tournament, and I respect them for that. You win some, and you lose some.
Q: NFL Labor unrest has dominated sports headlines. If the NBA and NFL cease play, what would you do?
A: We will adjust. Somehow I suspect we will adjust with men and women in suits sitting at desks talking in front of cameras and talking about the situation. All kidding aside, beyond, there are a number of other things we can televise. We will be flexible. I am optimistic. I am confident they will solve their issues.
Q: What is on the horizon that could impact what ESPN does?
A: I can answer that question in two ways. Everyone carries around some sort of device in their pocket. Half of them are smart phones. That is just going to keep growing. The quality at which you can see now on your devices or tablets is phenomenal. Sports are in an interesting spot. Nobody really wants to tape a game and watch it later, unless you have to. It is not like a drama or movie that you can watch any time. Sports have immediacy. We call it our “best screen available” philosophy. Our assumption is that, if you are a sports fan, you want to watch a game on the best screen available. You may be at a dinner and not at home, so your phone may be the best device. So our mantra is to put a game on the best screen available.
Q: Was sports broadcasting something you always wanted to get into growing up or was it something you slid in to?
A: The answer is no. I had no notion of it growing up. I wrote every major league baseball team a letter when I graduated college. I wrote 28 letters. They were 28 ‘you need me’ letters and I got 27 ‘ we don’t think so’ letters back. I got one interview from the Phillies because the owner of the Phillies graduated from the same school I did. I didn’t get a job, but I got an interview. A friend of my dad’s was at CBS, and he told me that if I wanted to get into television, I should think about cable. That was an interesting concept in 1980 because the networks were still riding high and cable was a basic thing. He said he could get me an interview with ESPN, and I don’t think I’d ever heard of ESPN. I lived in Connecticut, and we didn’t have cable. I had an interview, and I’m not sure the head of human resources even looked up at me during my interview. He let me know I had qualified to be a driver in the mailroom, that they’d have the job in a week and asked if I wouldn’t mind shoveling snow. About a week later, I was delivering mail for ESPN. That’s how I got started.
Q: Did you ever imagine you’d become president of the company after starting as a driver for the mailroom?
A: I never did. Not for a long time. It has been a wonderful company, and it has never stopped growing. We have a lot of folks who have grown up with the company, and it has been wonderful to work with.
Q: Thirty years of ESPN. What do you envision in the next 30 years, and what are some of the bigger things that you are looking forward to?
A: Thirty years is a long time. I’ll give you my favorite answer is that I don’t know. We are focused on our mission, which is serving sports fans. We are in 175 countries. We have 40-plus networks outside the U.S. Sports are as popular as ever. None of the new technologies have cannibalized any of the old ones. Everything is still growing on the sports side. The pie is continuing to grow. I am very optimistic we will continue to grow a great culture at the company.