At a talk sponsored by the Winston Center on Tuesday night, former president of ESPN George Bodenheimer told audience members that mission, brand and culture were the keys to ESPN’s success since the sports news outlet’s inception.
Bodenheimer oversaw ESPN from 1998 to 2011 as president and from 2012 to 2014 as executive chairman, alongside his positions as president of ABC Sports from 2003 to 2012 and executive for sports assets of the Walt Disney Company. His talk on leadership in Gasson 100 was delivered as part of the University’s Chambers Lecture Series.
He opened the dialogue on his approach to business by first speaking about the origins of ESPN, highlighting that the company began as a startup in 1979 that broadcasted University of Connecticut games to a small audience. Over the decades, the 24-hour sports network expanded rapidly and achieved great success, Bodenheimer said, pointing to the company’s mission—“To Serve Sports Fans”—as a key part of its growth.
“Whether you’re running a company, or whether you’re running this college or any other organization, define your mission and drive it home,” he said.
The other facet of the company’s success, he said, was effective branding.
“A brand is what comes to mind when you mention a product, a company, or even a person,” Bodenheimer said, arguing that it is extremely important for a company to build and nurture its perception through branding. He cited the popular “This is Sports Center” ad campaign as part of ESPN’s marketing effort to project the network as a sport authority with personality—which was preceded by the showing of an old blooper reel filled with ESPN on-air blunders.
“It taught us to have fun,” he said. “It taught us to laugh at ourselves. It taught us to take our sports seriously, but don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
What Bodenheimer said was the third component of ESPN’s success was company culture, stating that culture is arguably the most important of the three keys.
“There’s a lot of things in business that you cannot control, but one that you can control is your culture,” he said. Bodenheimer also expanded on the blue-collar work ethic he said he believes makes ESPN such a success—citing the story of The Little Engine That Could, he said that an underdog mentality generally makes people work harder and fight for what they have.
Another aspect of a strong culture Bodenheimer referenced was passion, crediting it as the reason behind two of the biggest innovations of ESPN’s time: the first of these was using a yellow line to show football fans where the first down was during football games, and the second turning the NFL draft into a primetime event by televising it.
He recounted experiences of enacting his idea of a strong company culture at ESPN by describing his meetings with senior executives and determining company priorities for the year, covering topics ranging from ratings, college football playoffs, and diversity and inclusion. Following these meetings, a card would then be given out to each ESPN employee with this list of priorities, which Bodenheimer said he believed empowered employees to build a company where employees would think innovatively for themselves.
“In my job as president, I thought of myself as a servant-leader,” Bodenheimer said. Referencing a Vince Lombardi quote—“Develop a culture that breeds and feeds on success”—he discussed how running a company requires a combined effort, and that it can’t be done without the employees.
During the Q&A session that followed his talk, Bodenheimer spoke about his decision to work in the mailroom of ESPN for only $8,000 a year at the onset of his time with the company. According to Bodenheimer, the decision was a career decision, not a money decision. On the advice of his father, he said, he chose to take the job because he was interested in sports television and not just the pay—mentioning that it was the best advice he ever received.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Staff