Back in 1981, George Bodenheimer ’80 interviewed with a little upstart cable network that had big ambitions. The company was called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, and just two years earlier, it had launched its signature program, SportsCenter, and promised sports fans 24-hour coverage of everything from the day’s football, basketball, and baseball highlights to Australian Rules football.
But Bodenheimer wasn’t sure about the job. It was a position in the mailroom, which meant delivering the mail throughout ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., serving as a driver to and from the airport for ESPN personalities like Dick Vitale, and shoveling snow. It would pay $8,300 a year.
“Forget about the pay and duties,” Bodenheimer’s father told him. “If they make you an offer, you should probably take it. It will get your foot in the door, and you can go from there.”
Bodenheimer, today a Denison trustee, took his dad’s advice when that offer came through. In his new book, Every Town is a Sports Town, he recalls the early days of ESPN, a company with which he would stay for more than three decades, eventually serving as president and executive chairman of the global sports media company.
It was the liberal arts, says Bodenheimer, that helped prepare him to rise through ESPN’s ranks, as he adapted to different areas within the company from the mailroom to the top spot.
“I believe my liberal arts education and living experience prepared me well to go out into the world,” says Bodenheimer, who also served as president of ABC Sports and as co-chair of Disney Media Networks. “I knew how to deal with people. You are given responsibilities and you develop relationships with professors at Denison. All of that helped prepare me for my career and my life after college.”
It was the liberal arts, says Bodenheimer, that helped prepare him to rise through ESPN’s ranks, as he adapted to different areas within the company from the mailroom to the president’s office.
Every Town is a Sports Town not only tells ESPN’s story, it also offers insights on business leadership from Bodenheimer, who will earn a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in May 2015 from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. One of his biggest tips for business leaders: never forget the people who are dedicating their careers to your company.
“When I became president, I studied for my first company address. I could have recited our projected growth rate for any of our business units worldwide,” Bodenheimer tells Denison Magazine in its spring 2015 issue. But the questions that followed were about cafeteria food, lighting in the parking lots and childcare options. From that point on, Bodenheimer shifted his focus.
“I put my emphasis on our people,” Bodenheimer says. “In talking about the company, I talked about the people and the culture and the mission, as much as if not more so, than the business.” It’s one of his proudest legacies, a media conglomerate worth more than $50 billion that’s really focused on its employees. “You take care of your people, they come through for the company.”
Bodenheimer does have one regret, though. College GameDay, an ESPN program that visits college campuses every weekend during football season, never made its way to Granville, opting instead for SEC or Big Ten games. “You know, that’s probably one of my biggest regrets,” Bodenheimer said with a laugh. “We should’ve done that.”
Top photo: © scottnobles.com