Growing up in Portland, Ore., a kid by the name of Bob Thompson could be found spending summer days in the stands at local minor-league baseball games. Even as a boy, Thompson showed a knack for doing deals. “We'd harass the players for baseballs,” he recalls, “and they'd give us one if we'd take a note over to a girl in the stands.”
Today, as president of Fox Sports Net (FSN) and Fox Sports International (FSI), Thompson does not need to beg for keepsakes. In fact, a recent addition to his office is an autographed Los Angeles Lakers jersey commemorating the 20-year relationship between Fox and the basketball team.
And it is a combination of his ability to forge such relationships and an encyclopedia-like knowledge of the sports world that has seen him rise to one of the top jobs in cable sports. But Thompson's expertise did not come overnight; he has been at it for nearly 25 years.
“I tell people I started in cable about a month after MTV started, so that puts it in perspective,” he says with a laugh.
He landed his first job in the business thanks to his grandfather, who had built a cable system that would become Cox's first in Oregon. Thompson sold cable subscriptions door-to-door for Storer Cable Communications in Aloha, Ore.
“I'll be the first to tell you, I wasn't doing a lot of selling,” he says. “I was just signing people up.”
For the next eight years, he worked his way up the ranks while bouncing all over the country, from Miami to Phoenix, to Houston and Washington.
He held a variety of sales jobs and was running Storer's ad-sales group in 1988 when the company was sold to TCI and Comcast.
Thompson admits he was a bit green. “I had never sold an ad in my life,” he says. “I didn't know a thing about [ad sales].”
But he learned enough that, by 1989, Comcast offered him the chance to move to Philadelphia to continue his ascendancy.
However, another enticing offer grabbed his attention: a chance to marry his twin passions for business and sports.
Thompson leapt at that opportunity and moved to Denver (“the cable Mecca at the time,” he says) to take over as general manager of a new regional network called Prime Sports Network.
“If I had to end up somewhere,” he says, “sports was perfect for me.”
Thompson, who describes his own athletic prowess as “beer league” at best, excelled in the gig. When the company soon became part of the Liberty Media Group, he helped add new networks in several markets and acquire others, including Prime Ticket in Los Angeles.
By 1995, Thompson became senior VP of Regional Network Operations for Liberty Sports, overseeing nine regional sports networks (RSNs). A year later, Fox and Liberty combined, and by the end of the next year, Thompson would become executive VP for Fox/Liberty Networks.
At Fox, Thompson continued to oversee the RSNs, before adding oversight of Fox Sports International in 1998. Subsequent promotions saw him become COO of FSN in 1999 and president of both FSN and FSI in 2000.
Thompson says being at Fox has given him the opportunity to work with a host of dynamic people, not the least of which is News Corp. Chairman/CEO Rupert Murdoch. Despite Murdoch's blustery management style, Thompson says the big boss values the opinions of his lieutenants.
“If he sees the conviction, he will go with it,” Thompson says. “You just hope you're right.”
One thing Thompson has been consistently right about is getting deals done to carry games on all his networks. His commitment to positioning FSN as a partner and not just a “televiser of sporting events,” as he puts it, has been crucial to landing contracts.
The key, Thompson believes, is strong relationships. “Where we have lost deals was not because we didn't write the check,” he says, “but more because the relationship is not where it should have been.”
DirecTV Entertainment Group President and Fox Sports Chairman David Hill says shoddy bridge-building is rarely a problem for Thompson.
“Bob has [the kind of] demeanor that everyone tells him their closest secrets within 30 seconds,” Hill says. “He also happens to have a better working knowledge of every sports team and conference in this country than anyone I know.”
ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES
Part of being a good teammate means rolling with the punches, Thompson has learned. He recalls a time when he was on the board of The Golf Channel and a board member scheduled a meeting at six in the morning.
“I called and wanted to know why in the world someone would do that,” he says. “Then I found out it was because Arnold Palmer, who was on the board, had to play that morning. Who is going to stop the king from making his tee time?”
And while Thompson has worked in sports for long enough that some of the glamour has worn off, its novelty still shines through at times.
“At some point, reality sets in, and you become jaded about sports,” he says. “But then you take your son to an All-Star Game and see the look on his face, and you want to thank the guy who gave you your first job selling door-to-door.”