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
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
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
“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
“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