Power Hitter Profile: Chuck Pagano — Sports-Technology Executive, Perpetual Learner

As executive VP of technology for one of the most innovative properties in all of sports, Chuck Pagano might be expected to have a home brimming with the latest electronic gizmos. However, in his free time, one of ESPN’s founding fathers spends more time on manual labor than on mobile apps, and a healthy diet of college courses keeps him sharp in every arena.

“I’m pretty low maintenance on the gadget scale,” says Pagano, who has been with ESPN since the network’s pre-air testing phase. “I don’t have a lot of toys; I sort of hit that satiation curve. But I’ve got a lot of yard toys; I probably have more chainsaws than anybody I know!”

Manufacturing to Radio to TV
Pagano began his career working with his hands as an apprentice, then journeyman toolmaker after graduating from high school in 1972. Luckily for ESPN, his manufacturing career was short-lived: skyrocketing gas prices sent demand for automobiles tumbling, and he was laid off. During a summer of unemployment, he got into the radio business.

“I met a couple of guys who were on the air in a local market in Connecticut, so I started hanging out at radio stations,” he says. “I was on the air in the mid ’70s, and I gravitated toward television as part of that journey. I got into the technical side of the equation when I finally figured out that disc jockeys didn’t make much money or have a very long shelf life.”

Pagano earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Hartford and put his knowledge to use at CBS affiliate WSFB Hartford. In 1978, rumors of a developing University of Connecticut alumni TV channel reached him, and his life changed forever.

At ESPN Before It Was ESPN
“Having a good capitalistic instinct and being the owner of a Harley Davidson that was falling apart daily, I elected to work on some of the focus-group productions with this little band of gypsies that was working on the UConn network,” Pagano says.

Over the course of four months, he helped produce a handful of UConn football, basketball, and field-hockey games but had not yet quit his day job.

“When word came around in April 1979 that they were going to be launching something, I was still living in my hometown of Waterbury,” Pagano recalls. “Instead of commuting to Hartford every day, I elected to see if I could commute to the next town over, Bristol. I came over in the summer of 1979 and have basically been here for the entire journey.”

Of all of the innovations with which he has been involved, he counts that journey as his proudest.

“From the very first shovel in the ground, ESPN was an innovation,” he says. “No one was doing sports like we’re doing now. There were pundits out there who thought we’d all be out of a job in two years. I was lucky to be part of the original rollout, when there were only 40 of us.”

‘Sports Was Just a Byproduct’
Surprisingly, Pagano’s motivation for joining ESPN was not sports-related. Although he considers himself a fan, he says he is not a “compelling” sports fan and, in 1979, was intrigued by the concept of cable television, which in 1979 was called MATV, or master-antenna television.

“In Connecticut, there are a lot of hills, and those hills block over-the-air antenna-on-top-of-the-roof reception,” he explains. “To help people that were blocked by the hills, the community put up a big master antenna and delivered on coaxial cable to the community. That’s how we started, and that’s what intrigued me: the fact that we were doing something different, unique, and technologically innovative. Sports was just a byproduct.”

In fact, ESPN — the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network — originally aired entertainment programming, along with sports, and even featured a morning business show.

“At the time, there was not enough sports content to satiate the inventory of hours that we had available, so we had to do other things,” Pagano points out. “Through the success of how we rolled out, we started focusing purely on sports.”

Two ‘Let’s-Try-It-Out’ Careers
In 30-plus years at ESPN, Pagano has taken two sabbaticals, one to Phillips Laboratories and one to defense contractor Sanders Associates. In the early ’80s, the defense industry was booming, and Pagano was fascinated by defense engineering and technology.

“Had my dad not died, I probably would have stayed up there,” he says. “But my dad passed away, so I moved back down, and I’ve been here ever since.”

He counts his dad as his number-one role model. An “engineer without the training,” Pagano’s father was a factory worker who taught his son about practicality. His mother extended that practicality, and Pagano still spends time with his 85-year-old mom.

Leadership à la Lombardi
Albert Einstein and Vince Lombardi also make his list of role models — Lombardi for a leadership style that connected with Pagano from an early age. Lombardi’s vision has stuck with him, and, as a senior executive at ESPN, he takes his leadership responsibilities very seriously.

“I define leadership as making people better and helping them to achieve their best out of work and life,” he says. “After I started going up the leadership track and dealing with large amounts of people and organization, I decided to get a masters in organizational psychology. I am intrigued with the ultimate technology: the human, which is much harder to diagnose, analyze, and improve the robustness of than any other technology.”

After earning his degree, Pagano was admitted to a PhD program in leadership but turned it down. Although his current role deals more with process policy than with engineering details, he tries to maintain his engineering wit.

“I don’t wear my pocket protector anymore,” he smiles. “But I may go back and take some engineering courses, just to keep my mind sharp.”

A Different Kind of Nightcap
To take those courses, however, Pagano would have to make room in his busy schedule. The executive is currently enrolled in two night courses at Wesleyan University, one in astronomy and the other on Islamic culture in the West.

“Only because I find it rather intriguing in what’s going on around us in our society, in our day-to-day existence,” he says of the latter. “I’m a constant learner. I’ve always taken courses whenever I get the chance. Many things interest me, so I guess I suffer from a little bit of ADD.”

That ADD can come in handy with a job like Pagano’s, where he is constantly pulled in multiple directions and asked to get a firm grasp on every technology issue facing the industry before another wave hits.

“This society deals in swarms of technology change,” he points out. “It’s not just one big change that’s happening any longer; you get them in droves — whether it be 3D, the mobile space, or the broadband technology. At trade shows, I see a lot of solutions in search of problems. That’s probably the challenge: in all that mass of stuff that people are proposing, trying to figure out what is going to stick the best and what’s going to bring value enhancements and profitability to the organization.”

One area that certainly stuck for Pagano was high definition.

He played a critical role in its launch. “Back in an era when people were looking at us like we were out of our minds, we took a leap of faith in building out a rather large production facility toward HD. I think the rollout of ESPNHD changed the way we aggregately watch television in the world today. It’s not just here in the US; you see a lot of the HD push globally, and that brings out a whole new experience.”

A Full Family Life
Once again a resident of Waterbury, CT, Pagano enjoys his home, including the yard work that comes with it, and spending time with friends and family.

“I spend as much time with my mom as I can,” he says. “My sisters are literally a quarter-mile away from me in each direction so I see them a lot. I still hang around with my three best friends from grammar school. I don’t have any children, but I’m a godparent to at least one of each of their children, so it’s an extended family.”

Pagano’s parents originally hail from eastern Pennsylvania, so he does enjoy the occasional Yuengling beer and scrapple as well.

Now in his “bucket list” phase of life, as he characterizes it, ESPN’s CTO is looking to diversify the menu of things that keep him interested — which suggests that astronomy, Islamic culture, and engineering do not quite fit the bill. One of the most well-rounded executives currently working in sports, Pagano is unique in his influence and staying power at a single organization as well as for his thirst for knowledge on nearly every topic.

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