League Technology Summit: George Bodenheimer, Ed Goren Share Memories of Storied Careers
On the morning of their Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductions, ESPN executive chairman George Bodenheimer and former Fox Sports Media Group vice chairman Ed Goren sat down for an interview with veteran ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap to kick off Day 2 of SVG’s League Technology Summit in New York.
In front of a standing-room-only, record-setting LTS crowd of over 900 attendees, Bodenheimer and Goren had a chance to reflect on their successful careers and how technology has impacted their companies and the business as a whole.
As Schaap pointed out, each man’s career is a testament to the fact that one needs to spend money to make money. ESPN has become a juggernaut in gobbling up rights for sports across the spectrum. Bodenheimer, who spent 13 years as president at ESPN before becoming executive chairman earlier this year, was at the front lines of many of the network’s biggest deals.
“Look at what’s happening right now with rights fees,” says Bodenheimer. “If you’re not prepared to spend money in this business, you’re going to get left behind. Its rather obvious at this point. You’ve got to roll the dice. The first NFL deal we signed was worth $187 million, which at the time was ‘ are you kidding?’”
That spending didn’t just come in the way of programming. When Fox Sports shook up the industry and acquired rights to the NFL in 1994, Goren and co-chairman at the time David Hill upped the ante across the board in production gear.
“In 1993, NBC and CBS actually covered NFL games, some, every week with four cameras and two tape machines. That was unbelievable for those small audience games,” said Goren, a 46-time Emmy Award winner. “When we started Fox, I said, ‘you know what, the people in Tampa don’t know they are a 10% game, they deserve a quality broadcast’ and I think we started out six [cameras] and four [tape machines] and built it up from there on our smallest shows.
“One of the toughest things to do is to get your company to support all this craziness. As a leader of your organization you are fighting for your organization. You have to sell your bosses to give you the ability to write those checks.”
In addition to reflecting on their own careers, each man addressed key moments in the histories of their respective companies.
The story of ESPN’s rise to prominence is well-documented and Bodenheimer, who started his career at “the worldwide leader” as a vehicle driver, credited key business decisions that came well before his time as an executive.
“The turning point for the company was when the business model was changed from giving it away to asking for a modest fee to support the production and the programming,” said Bodenheimer. “Without that change I don’t think the company would have succeeded. That dual revenue stream didn’t exist at the time, we introduced it and we were able to sell it.”
At Fox Sports, Goren said the team took pride in taking risks.
“David and I would literally start our days at 8 in the morning and finish at some bar that night,” he said. “The next day we’d be going through cocktail napkins asking, ‘whose crazy idea was it to put a football field on our set?’ We decided we were going to put this graphic up on the screen and call it the ‘Fox Box.’
“You know, there were no rules. We looked at everything that had preceded us, took in the good and thought that maybe be can improve all of these other areas. I wouldn’t say we didn’t have a fear of failure, but we just didn’t take ourselves that seriously and there was nothing wrong with failing. The real mistake would be not getting aggressive. When we failed, we went back to the red wine and came up with a new great idea.”
Keeping with the technology theme, Bodenheimer praised the advent of high-definition as being a critical moment for ESPN and the sports broadcasting industry as a whole.
“I remember it was ’92, ’93 and the industry is throwing their hands up in the air because there was competing formats, there was no business model. There was a lot of confusion,” he said. “Our head of technology, Chuck Pagano, basically said to us, the managers, ‘hey, you guys figure out the business model and you tell Disney whatever we need, but I am telling you that this picture is much better.’ If we believe our own story of a mission to serve fans and produce a product than we have to do that. Now look at the in-home experience. There’s never been a better time to be a sports fan.”