ESPN at 30: The Game's On


Ahead of the 30th anniversary of ESPN's launch (on Sept. 7), Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead spoke to ESPN Inc. president George Bodenheimer about the imprint the worldwide sports leader has had on the cable and media landscape. They spoke at the network's “media day” in Bristol, Conn., on Aug. 27.

MCN: How big of an impact has ESPN had on the cable industry over the past 30 years?

George Bodenheimer: First of all it's been a mutual relationship between ESPN and the cable industry. Yes, ESPN has been one of the drivers for the growth of the cable industry, but it's been a two-way street because ESPN wouldn't be where it is today without the cable industry.

MCN: Has ESPN set the standard for the cable industry with regard to negotiating licensing deals between networks and operators?

GB: I wouldn't say that we were a trend-setter. I think we're proud of the leadership position that we've had in the industry over those 30 years. ESPN certainly has been one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, network for the cable operators to offer and we've worked very hard to make our partnerships work well. Through our local advertising sales efforts and our marketing, we've helped cable set their agendas in their local markets, so I'm proud of the leadership position we've been able to take.

MCN: What event or deal would you point to that you feel officially put ESPN on the national sports map?

GB: I think there were a few of them, starting with our coverage of the NCAA [men's] basketball tournament when we televised the early rounds — that was huge for us.

Also the America's Cup, which hadn't been televised previously, was big. We were bringing back pictures from Australia that no one had ever seen before.

Then we finished it off with the acquisition of the NFL rights package in 1987. I think those were the three distinguishing moments that put us on the map.

MCN: Now that you're securely on the sports map, what are some of the challenges going forward?

GB: There are a lot of challenges. We're in a very competitive environment — the media industry continues to evolve, consumers are looking for new ways to access product, distributors' businesses are constantly changing, the leagues are in the network business themselves, so it's anything but automatic pilot. One of our challenges is to stay very focused on our core mission to serve our core fans and to do it with integrity. But it certainly is a very competitive environment.

MCN: What's been your most memorable moment over the 30 years?

GB: That's a really hard question. I'm not certain I can point to any one moment. I have been blessed with this job to see so many great sports and sports events that picking any one out would be difficult. I will tell you what I enjoy the most is when I see ESPN people working together to serve the customer or launch a new product. We pride ourselves on a culture of teamwork here and that's what I personally get the most enjoyment out of.