Russell Wolff defines the global sports executive. As the EVP and managing director of ESPN International, he oversees ESPN's operations in 190 countries and territories. Plus, he launched ESPN Radio in 13 nations. Since joining the sports network, he has been on a mission: to spread sports worldwide.
A self-confessed TV junkie who spent his childhood watching sports every afternoon and evening, Wolff grew up in a home where sports was de rigueur. “It was always on,” says Wolff, who rooted for the Rangers, Knicks, Giants, Yankees and Mets.
As a teenager in suburban New York, he was captain of the ice-hockey team. Even before graduating from Mamaroneck High School, he worked as a production assistant with ABC Radio Sports for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He then attended Dartmouth College, where he studied government and seriously considered a career in law. But by 1988, the sports bug was back. Wolff returned to ABC Radio Sports briefly as a venue operations coordinator for the Winter Olympics in Calgary.
After getting his BA, Wolff developed an interest in advertising and was recruited in 1989 as an account executive for the Leo Burnett Co. in Chicago. Three years into his advertising stint, he decided to enhance his market value and earned an MBA from Dartmouth.
By 1994, his grad-school decision had paid off.
MTV recruited him as director of market development for affiliate sales and marketing. “I loved MTV and learning how to sell the product,” he says.
Three years later, he married—and was offered a vice president post at ESPN Pacific Rim, with board seats on three ESPN joint ventures. Although he had to live apart from his wife for six months, he savored living abroad in Hong Kong and Singapore. “It's great to live where you are a minority and learn a different culture. It's altered the way I think about the world.”
And that broader view has enhanced his business expertise.
“He understands the need for the local relevance of our brand,” says Jodi Markley, senior vice president, ESPN international production, ESPN Classic and ESPN News, who has worked with Wolff since 2000. “Under [his] leadership, we've launched a lot of networks and brands into the local market.”
For example, after his move from ESPN Pacific Rim to ESPN Star Sports, where he is chairman of the board, Wolff created ESPN Taiwan and Star Sports Taiwan. By 1999, the event-management arm of ESPN International was running the extreme-sports competition X Games in Asia, the Asian Bowling Tour, plus the Singapore Open tennis tournament, accomplishments that got Wolff elevated to senior vice president in 1999. By 2002, he was tapped as managing director, and he was instrumental in bringing ESPN the Magazine to China.
Business success aside, Wolff had to handle a personal crisis at home. In 2000, a family illness prompted a transfer to ESPN International in New York.
Wolff's personal work ethic meant that for two and a half months, he took 21-hour flights from Singapore to New York every 10 days to “get the work done.” Still, he credits ESPN with understanding his situation and allowing him the flexibility to work out a creative schedule.
Ever the international promoter, by mid 2001, Wolff had launched ESPN Classic Sport in France and Italy. That meant he flew to London each Wednesday and back to New York on Friday for six months until the network was fully staffed and programmed.
His latest challenge: ESPN's popular show Pardon the Interruption is being duplicated in Australia, four new versions of SportsCenter are premiering internationally, and Cronómetro (“Stopwatch”), similar to PTI, is debuting in Latin America and on U.S.-based ESPN Deportes.
Although the international political climate has made global events tougher to coordinate, Wolff is determined to return the X Games to Europe, grow ESPN Classic Sport beyond its 37 European countries into the United Kingdom and establish wireless initiatives in Asia.
“One of the most impressive things about [Russell] has been the performance of the international division under his leadership,” says Lino Garcia, general manager, ESPN Deportes. “The network is tapping into a lot of the infrastructure that's been developed, and he has coordinated it very well.”
As Wolff scans the cricket bats, the five clocks set to different time zones, numerous family photos and signed pictures of Howard Cosell and Arthur Ashe that line his office, he beams. His career satisfaction is palpable. Says Wolff: “I know I am in the right job.”