Hopkins Hits for the Yankee Team
He grew up rooting for the Yanks, and now he’s COO of their network
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/24/2005 8:00:00 PM
Talk about a guy landing his dream job.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey during the 1970s, Ray Hopkins, now COO of the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network (YES), rooted passionately for the New York team. Born in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium, he idolized second baseman Willie Randolph as the Bronx Bombers won back-to-back World Series, and dreamed of someday playing for the team.
So when YES CEO Tracy Dolgin, Hopkins’ former boss at Fox/Liberty Networks, gave him a call last fall and asked him to come on board, Hopkins—then working and living in Los Angeles—jumped at the chance. He, his wife and their 2-year-old son packed up and returned to New Jersey, with Hopkins joining the channel last December.
“The next best thing to actually playing for them is to be associated with them in the fashion I am today,” he says. “It’s a dream job that I consider myself fortunate to have.”
Hopkins has, in fact, been able to combine vocation and avocation throughout much of his career. He was at his first job, in affiliate sales for CNBC in Ft. Lee, N.J., when he heard of an opening at Los Angeles-based Prime Ticket, a regional sports network.
“The chance to get paid to work for a regional sports network was too much,” he says, adding that Prime Ticket’s swank digs on Santa Monica Blvd. enticed him as well.
Prime Ticket eventually was sold to Liberty and became Fox/Liberty Networks. Working for Dolgin, Hopkins learned valuable business lessons in landing cable distribution for both networks throughout Southern California, Arizona and Hawaii.
“I’ve been on the side of the table that had a lot of leverage and the side of the table that didn’t,” he says. “If you can build relationships and treat the other party fairly, you’ll have a successful career.”
One of the more challenging jobs Hopkins held was Fox Cable Network senior VP, affiliate sales and marketing, which he was named in June 1999. Overseeing a portfolio of networks ranging from FX to National Geographic Channel to Speed Channel, he learned how to sell every type of content, and quickly helped FX and National Geographic attain a national presence with operators.
Like an astute bench coach in baseball, Hopkins also scooped up some managerial lessons while at Fox. “Much of the success News Corp. has had is due to them hiring young, aggressive, smart people and just letting them run,” he says. “It was an environment where it was basically up to you to succeed.”
Several from that gang of young, aggressive, smart people have gone on to bigger things. Among them: Jeff Shell, current president of Comcast programming, and Tony Ball, president of BSkyB.
Hopkins kept growing as well. In late 2002, he decided to take on a new challenge: joining struggling TV Guide/Gemstar, where he was responsible for distribution of TV Guide’s programming services. Hopkins helped the TV Guide Channel land distribution in 80 million homes within two years.
“We were in deal-making mode as we tried to resurrect a sinking ship,” he says. “And again, we had the creative freedom and latitude to do the job.”
Joining the Dream Team
Then Dolgin came calling, and Hopkins got a shot at joining the dream team. Besides showing Yankee games, YES also features the New Jersey Nets of the NBA, another Hopkins childhood favorite. The team plays just minutes from his hometown of Glen Rock.
While the Yankees have been up and down this season, YES has proved much more consistent. The network averaged 79,000 TV households daily during the first half of 2005, 61% more than its nearest competitor; fittingly enough, that’s New England Sports Network (NESN), home of the rival Boston Red Sox.
Now Hopkins, whose wife is expecting their second child, is embarking upon the next phase of the young network, which he and Dolgin call YES Network 2.0 (Version 1.0, headed up by cable legend Leo Hindery, made headlines for carriage battles with Cablevision and Comcast.) Among other things, the next phase will include Nets games in HDTV.
“Sports is the killer app for HD,” he says.
YES Network experimented with HD Yankee telecasts last season, and one of Hopkins’ first tasks as COO was to negotiate HD carriage deals for the current season.
The next phase
“The prior management team did an excellent job of getting the network off the ground,” Hopkins says. “And so far, we’ve gotten tangible results in viewership as we take it to another level.”
Dolgin, for his part, is happy to have Hopkins on the squad. “Ray was integral in the phenomenal growth of Fox’s cable networks, and we expect him to have a similar impact here,” says the YES Network CEO. “We’ve already benefited from his experience and expertise in the brief time he has been with us.”
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