It’s baseball season, the New York Yankees are winning, and that’s as good as a doubleheader for Jon Litner, who joined the industry’s biggest regional sports network as president last year.
With Aaron Judge blasting homers, YES Network’s Yankees ratings are up 50% and game telecasts are No. 1 among men versus all regularly scheduled broadcast and cable programs.
Litner, who grew up in Red Sox territory, has played nearly every position in the sports business. He’s been at a network, with ABC Sports; at the National Hockey League; at national cable networks Versus and Golf Channel; at a distributor in Comcast; and at regional sports networks.
Away from the office, Litner said his family is his top priority. He’s got two sons and a daughter. Michael played lacrosse at Amherst College and is now working in New York, David is in film school at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Jenna is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin.
An edited transcript of his conversation with B&C business editor Jon Lafayette follows.
What did you want to be when grew up?
I wanted to be a professional baseball player, like lots of red-blooded athletic guys. But it was pretty evident to me in college that I wasn’t blessed with Ted Williams’ eyesight, nor Mickey Mantle’s forearm strength, so I decided to get into the business of sports by using my IQ points instead. I played at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., with Paul Sorrento, who had an 11-year career in the major leagues, and I also followed Glenn Sherlock, third base coach for the Mets. Then I went to Yale and played four years of football and baseball.
Why did you go to law school?
It trains you how think through a problem, negotiate, think on your feet. There are lots of tangible skills you get out of law school beyond simply the elements of the law. I met [TV vet and now MLB chief operating officer] Tony Petitti when I was a summer associate at a law firm where he was a second-year associate. We became very good friends. He very much became a mentor to me. After I graduated I went to work at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a law firm that [former MLB commissioner] Bowie Kuhn was of counsel; that’s why I went there.
We hear about ESPN’s problems. Is sports on TV still a good business?
ESPN remains a terrific business. They’re recalibrating the relationship between their revenue and their costs and trying to figure out where to take their business. What we have as a regional sports network is the New York Yankees, one of the world’s most pre-eminent sports brands, with great history, great tradition, a passionate fan base and — when the team is back winning, as it is now — it is one of those teams that become part of the fabric of the community. So, in many ways, we’re in a stronger position and a bit more resistant to some of these macro factors that are impacting all of us.
What’s your No. 1 sports moment?
I went to the Tommy Morrison-Ray Mercer fight in Atlantic City, 1992. It was part of our Wide World of Sports ABC programming weekend. I brought my now-wife, Polly, on a date. Morrison got knocked out cold by Mercer and we were sitting in the sixth or seventh row and I was horrified that I had blown it with my date because it was such a violent knockout with sweat and everything flying into the first couple of rows. I looked over at Polly and she was up out of her seat, screaming, yelling, enjoying the moment, and at that point in time I said, ‘I’m going to marry this woman.’
What do you do for fun?
I’m very much an outdoor enthusiast. I play golf, I cycle, I paddleboard, anything I can do that involves some sort of physical exertion I enjoy doing.