When the two top executives at ESPN start talking about the pioneering technical efforts that earned Chuck Pagano a place in the B&C Hall of Fame, the discussion quickly turns to the impact of the company's massive 120,000 square-foot Digital Center on its Bristol, Conn., campus.
"ESPN helped drive the adoption of HD, and we wouldn't have been able to do that if Chuck and his team hadn't been there to figure out how to make it work with new trucks and equipment," for the launch of its HD feed in 2003, says ESPN president and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks John Skipper. "The Digital Center was critical to all that. It has really helped define ESPN's leadership in technology-in HD, in studio technology, in cutting highlights, in digital delivery, you name it. There are not many people who have a 120,000 square-foot accomplishment to their name."
But in 2004, as the facility was about to open, ESPN executive chairman George Bodenheimer recalls asking Pagano to show him the part of the facility he was most proud of. Without missing a beat, ESPN's top technologist led Bodenheimer past millions of dollars of new equipment over to a closet; it had been added to the design after employees had asked for a place to hang their coats.
"That story always stuck with me because it illustrates how humble and unassuming Chuck is and how he is always listening to the people that keep that facility running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Bodenheimer says.
"You will not find many people who straddle the world of practical production technology and visionary views of the future of technology," adds Skipper. "Chuck is equally comfortable figuring out how to make the trains run and how to design the train of the future."
That has resulted in a slew of pioneering technical efforts, including the creation of ESPN's infrastructure for its expanding online, mobile and TV Everywhere efforts; the 2009 opening of the L.A. Production Center, which was the world's first 1080p production center; groundbreaking experiments in virtual reality; pioneering 3D sports production advances; globe-spanning fiber networks; new research facilities that are now testing new 4K technologies; and work on the new Digital Center 2, a 195,000- square-foot facility that will likely feature a number of other technical firsts when it goes live in 2014.
"People talk about Google as being the ultimate innovative tech start-up, but in sports ESPN was the ultimate start-up," says Pagano, who joined the network shortly before its 1979 launch and now serves as the company's executive VP and CTO. "We were out there doing things that no one on the planet was doing....We did what we called hacking, " or adapting existing technologies to new uses. In one case, for example, they took an off-the-shelf garage door opener and used it to create a robotic camera set-up.
But if innovation started early in Pagano's ESPN career, technology and engineering weren't initially part of his game plan. After graduating from high school in 1972, where Pagano says he was not very interested in science, he got a job as a toolmaker in a factory but was quickly laid off when the oil crisis hit in 1974.
That summer, however, he met a radio announcer and began working as a DJ. Getting an FCC license sparked an interest in engineering that led him back to school at the University of Hartford and work at WFSB-TV as a technician between 1977 and 1979.
"I had a Harley-Davidson that always needed new parts, so I always needed spare cash," Pagano recalls. He began doing some freelance sports production work, which led to being hired at ESPN.
At ESPN he quickly hit his stride, rising through the ranks in the '80s and '90s. "One of my first acts when I was named president in 1998 was to elevate him to our head of engineering," Bodenheimer says.
By that time, Pagano had established a reputation for his willingness to work on industry-wide technical initiatives. Bob Zitter, HBO CTO and executive VP, technology operations, recalls that when HBO decided to encrypt its satellite feed, an industry first, the programmer sent the technology over to Pagano's ESPN team to help adapt it for wider usage throughout the industry.
"Chuck and his team have always been very collaborative in terms of sharing knowledge to help the industry," Zitter says.
Over the years, Pagano has also been what Skipper calls a "lifelong learner" who is always taking classes. Pagano completed a master's degree in organization psychology at the University of Hartford in 2007, to help improve his management skills, and he is currently working on another master's at Wesleyan University, where he is particularly enjoying studying astronomy. "When I retire, I'm going to be an amateur astronomer," he declares.
Pagano is also extremely active in educational issues. He serves on the Tunxis Foundation Board for Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Conn.; on the Board of Regents at the University of Hartford as well as on the Board of Advisers for the College of Engineering. He also is a passionate advocate of the STEM initiative for science, technology, engineering and math education.
Meanwhile, Pagano sees both his sisters, who live within one mile of his house, every few days and keeps daily tabs on his mother and aunt. "I still live where I grew up and see people that I've known since I was in grade school," he says.
Despite his success as the tech leader of a sports powerhouse, Pagano readily admits he isn't a gadget geek or a sports fanatic, preferring to watch video on a TV and being more likely to watch the NASA Channel than a sporting event.
"I was up at 1 a.m. to watch the Mars Rover landing, and I am saying to myself, ‘Chuck, there is something the matter with you-no one is up at 1 in the morning to watch this,'" Pagano quips.
"But I'm just intrigued with where mankind is headed, and what we are doing on Mars fascinates me." --George Winslow