ESPN’s Pagano Looks Back at Three Decades of Innovation, Inspiration

In the world of sports media, few names are as synonymous with terms like innovation and technology trailblazer as Chuck Pagano. In his three-plus decades at ESPN, he spearheaded the network’s transformation from fledgling Bristol, CT-based startup to one of the most technologically advanced media companies in the world. ESPN’s EVP of technology since 2005 and CTO since 2011, he is the technical architect of much of ESPN’s Bristol Campus, including Digital Center 1 and the recently opened state-of-the-art Digital Center 2.

Chuck Pagano will retire from ESPN in February.

Chuck Pagano will retire from ESPN in February.

Pagano has received two Emmy Awards for technical achievement, the NCTA’s Vanguard Award for Science & Technology, and SMPTE’s David Sarnoff Medal and is a member of both the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.

And yet, despite this parade of accolades and accomplishments, Pagano remains the same humble, jovial, booming-voiced technician who arrived in Bristol 35 years ago.

“I haven’t contributed a damn thing,” he laughs. “I’ve really just been a great cheerleader for all the amazing people I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years. My contribution has been primarily getting other people to enjoy their work and try to get as much creativity and take as much risk as physically, emotionally, and intellectually possible.”

As Pagano segues into the next stage of his life — he passed his day-to-day oversight responsibilities to SVP of Technology and Product Development Aaron LaBerge in June and will officially retire in February — the Waterbury, CT, native remains an “engineer at heart” and is thankful for the creative opportunities his storied career at ESPN has afforded him over the years.

“I have worked in a laboratory here that’s allowed me to be as most open an engineer as I can possibly think of,” he says. “I’ve had a great time building up this baby. I’ve been here when it was nothing, and it’s developed into a fairly robust adult at 35 years. It’s sort of like being a father. I don’t have any children, so this was sort of my pseudo child for most of my adult life.”

In the Beginning
In August 1979, Pagano elected to leave his post as a technician at CBS affiliate WFSB Hartford, CT, to join a ragtag group of entrepreneurs launching a cable channel called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (or ESP Network). VP of Sports Programming and Operations Scotty Connal  (a fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer) had to personally persuade the station’s GM to allow Pagano to move to Bristol — a move Pagano was grateful for, as it cut his commute from Westbury in half.

“It was essentially a disbanded joint of hippies that got together in ’79, and I’ve seen everything from the get-go,” says Pagano. “We had no bathrooms in it for the first eight months and no running water for the first few weeks. It was more like being in a MASH unit, to be perfectly honest.”

As one of the original ’79ers, Pagano teamed with what would become an all-star roster of television stalwarts to build out network operations and transform ESPN into a bona fide cable powerhouse.

“It was the greatest, most unbelievable event in my life, those early days: the uncharted territory, the camaraderie you built up with a great bunch of people that continues to this day,” he says. “I came over here for the opportunity of doing something cool, unique, and incredibly different, and that’s exactly what it ended up being.”

Entrepreneurial, Creative
Although the early days of ESPN required plenty of technological improvisation, Pagano’s desire to innovate has only grown over the years. He worked his way up the ESPN ladder from technical director to systems engineer (1983-89); manager, engineering project development (1989-92); director, operations and engineering project development (1992-94); SVP, engineering and technology (1995-99); SVP, technology, engineering, and operations (1999-2005), and finally to EVP of technology and CTO.

“Quite simply, Chuck Pagano personifies ESPN — its entrepreneurial spirit, its creative passion, and its focus on the people who make it all happen — and we would not be what we are today without him,” ESPN President John Skipper said upon Pagano’s retirement announcement. “I am personally grateful for his contributions and insights, and I join all ESPNers in offering an enthusiastic thank you for all he has meant to our company.”

Chief among Pagano’s triumphs at ESPN was his integral role in the company’s decision to transition to HD in 2003 — well ahead of the majority of the industry — and the corresponding launch of ESPN’s first Digital Center in Bristol. Digital Center 1 opened in June 2004 to serve as the home of ESPN and ESPN2 HD studio programming, with four HD studios totaling 20,000 sq. ft.

Pagano and his team didn’t stop there, launching ESPN’s 77,000-sq.-foot Los Angeles Production Center in 2009, the world’s first fully 1080p HD facility, complete with more than 12,300 sq. ft. of studio space.

The best was yet to come, however. Pagano helped spearhead the design and development of Digital Center 2, which opened on June 1. The 194,000-sq.-ft. technological behemoth now serves as the home of SportsCenter, ESPN’s NFL studio programming, and a host of other studio shows. Built around a first-of-its-kind IP routing core and almost entirely fiber-based connectivity, ESPN’s 18th Bristol building is intended to be a format-agnostic facility prepared to handle not only end-to-end 1080p production but whatever may come down the technological path — be it 4K, 8K, or beyond.

Check out SVG’s Special Report on ESPN’s Digital Center 2, PART 1 and PART 2.

“Chuck’s limitless curiosity and genuine care for people has led ESPN Technology to a culture of creativity, invention, and empowerment,” says LaBerge. “I consider this to be his most important gift to our company. He is an engineer’s engineer, and his passion for problem-solving was instrumental in shaping the modern television landscape — which, of course, also shaped the modern sports landscape and is still shaping the video landscape across media platforms.”

What’s Next?
Despite always being on the lookout for the next technical challenge, Pagano is relishing the chance to shepherd LaBerge through his initial days at the helm of ESPN’s technology operations.

Aaron LaBerge will take the helm of ESPN’s technology operations.

Aaron LaBerge will take the helm of ESPN’s technology operations.

“I’ll be here to help the transition with Aaron. I’m going to allow him to develop his own style in the process, which means I won’t be coming in here every day,” he says. “The Chuck Pagano era is over, the Aaron LaBerge era is commencing. It’s as simple as that. He’s a smart, creative guy and a polished executive. He thinks in many disciplines, not just technical but also entrepreneurial and with a business sense. He’s an incredibly curious guy and savvy technologically. I know I’m leaving the company in good hands.”

This marks LaBerge’s second go-round at ESPN, having called the Bristol campus home from 1997 to 2007 as a software engineer following Disney’s acquisition of Starwave Ventures, which produced ESPN’s early Internet initiatives. Pagano and LaBerge quickly proved to be kindred engineering spirits.

“I consider Chuck to be a lifelong mentor and friend,” says LaBerge. “Working with Chuck — both in my first stint and now again during the past 18 months — has been an amazing experience for me, both personally and professionally,” he says. “We both have a fundamental love of technology and how it can solve problems and create new opportunities. I’ve had the privilege of being deeply involved in some really amazing projects with him — from the build-out of DC2 to the development of our own phone company [ESPN MVNO] to the advance of the infrastructure and platforms that have helped shape ESPN’s digital-media business, and more. Chuck also happens to be one of the most genuine and caring people you’ll ever meet. And he’s a lot of fun.”

Although Pagano says he is looking forward to some much needed relaxation and to “not worrying about if we’re off the air every day of the week,” he also is excited for the challenges ahead and proud of the legacy he will leave behind.

“One of my idols, Albert Einstein, said, ‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value,’” he adds. “So I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind. That’s how I guided myself throughout the years. If I’m not value-oriented, then please get rid of me. I think the value that I’ve helped to create at this company is set in stone now, and now it’s time for what’s next.”