George Bodenheimer started out at ESPN as a driver—a glorified title for a mailroom job–and, 20 years later, he's driving the entire network as president, overseeing all domestic and international operations.
ESPN has fared well under Bodenheimer's three-year watch. Having locked up a share of the National Basketball Association's TV deal last month, the network boasts rights to all four major American sports leagues. Ratings are up, and demographics favor the young-male viewers advertisers crave. ESPN's first original movie, Season on the Brink, debuts Sunday.
Bodenheimer joined the fledging Entertainment and Sports Programming Network in 1981, shortly after graduating from Denison College. A family friend who worked in TV advised that, if he wanted to work in TV, he should go straight to cable. Better yet, go straight to Bristol, Conn., where a new all-sports channel was getting off the ground. Back then, ESPN had only 150 employees; today, it counts about 3,000.
Bodenheimer accepted an entry-level administrative job and waited for a better opportunity. He gravitated to the business side early on, although he did sub as a cameraman once when a talk show was short-staffed. When an affiliate-sales position opened in Texas in 1982, the Greenwich, Conn., native was soon pushing ESPN to operators in five Southern states.
"We weren't on anybody's radar screen," he says. "What I quickly learned is every town in America considers itself a sports town. That made the selling pretty easy."
In those days, however, ESPN wasn't offering Major League Baseball and Sunday Night NFL games. "We were the little network that could. We televised sports that no one was interested in putting on."
Today, ESPN airs 65 sports, from high-profile leagues like the NHL and NFL to high school cheerleading championships and bass fishing.
Bodenheimer returned to Bristol in 1989 as vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for the Eastern Region. By 1995, he was in charge of all ESPN sales and marketing efforts. That's when, he says, he first got involved with the programming side.
"News and information, especially SportsCenter, is our bread and butter," he says. Little by little, though, he is guiding his channel down a new path: entertainment programming.
He considers sports-themed entertainment a natural for the network. "There's an opportunity to expand what sports fans look to ESPN for."
ESPN started with documentaries, then a few reality series and, now, a made-for-TV movie. Bodenheimer knows Season on the Brink, about embattled former Indiana University coach Bobby Knight, is a bold, expensive first project—reportedly $5 million to $10 million, plus another few million for advertising and marketing—yet he believes movies are part of an aggressive strategy.
"To me, it's risky not to expand our programming," he explains. "Our competition isn't just sports networks; it's all networks. Just standing pat is not good enough."
If the movie goes well, the next project may tackle the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed. A script is in development. The network also may consider scripted drama or a comedy.
Besides the new challenge of entertainment programming, Bodenheimer faces a more-familiar struggle: negotiating with cable operators. MSO executives love to gripe about ESPN's subscriber fees, but he doesn't want to hear it. He calls his channel a "remarkable value" and says it's No. 1 in subscriber retention and acquisition, and local ad sales. "Privately," he says, "operators will acknowledge their relationship with ESPN is a win-win. But, publicly, they will fuel the rhetoric."