George Bodenheimer’s departure from ESPN has been anticipated for some time – he gave up oversight of the Walt Disney sports juggernaut’s daily operations last year – but official word that the company’s executive chairman had set an exit date of May 31 after serving 33 years in its ranks is sure to draw some attention to where the media giant may be headed.
Bodenheimer, who started out as a driver in the company’s mailroom, oversaw ESPN’s greatest era of expansion, playing a large role in taking a company based on a single network to one that boasts a suite of outlets. The moves were prescient, lending ESPN heft even before 21st Century Fox, NBCUniversal and CBS Corp. launched sports networks of their own. ESPN2, which doesn’t always get the attention accorded the company’s flagship, continues to generate a healthy amount of subscriber fees from video distributors.
“It is impossible to completely capture the impact George has had on our company and on so many of us during his remarkable 33 years with ESPN…his work ethic was unparalleled, his focus on teamwork always clear. He believed completely in the collective talent of ESPN’s employees, and he combined a realist’s pragmatism with an optimist’s faith in navigating ESPN through unprecedented growth,” said John Skipper, who succeeded Bodenheimer as president at the start of 2012, in a memo to ESPN staffers.
ESPN put a stake in the ground on sports coverage in an era when sports was desirable, but not necessarily seen as essential. The advent of the digital video recorder, which decimated the live audiences who are unable to skip past commercials, has changed all that. These days, sports programming is one of the few pieces of content that can draw the kind of big-tent crowd advertisers need to hawk their wares. As such, live sports has become a must-have asset – and a costly one. CBS’ recent pact to broadcast Thursday-night NFL games and NBCU’s deal to keep the Olympics under its roof until 2032 only serve to underscore the new importance attached to telecasting any kind of event that can attract mass.
Bodenheimer leaves ESPN as it faces some question about its ability to maintain its hold on various deals with different sports leagues as competition ramps up. The company has years-long deals in place for most of its best-known properties,which include “Monday Night Football,” and has demonstrated a talent for picking up more classic events, like Wimbledon. The company snatched all the rights to the tennis classic in 2011, dealing a blow to NBCUniversal, which had broadcast the finals and semifinals for decades. Indeed, its deal with the NBA is set to expire after the 2015-2016 season, and rivals are sure to make a play to snatch them up.
“I have been proud to represent the men and women of ESPN. Every day I was asked questions about the future, and my favorite answer was, ‘ESPN has the best employees in the business. They know what the mission of the company is, and together we will figure it out’…I have great faith that it will always be true,” Bodenehimer said in a memo to staffers. “ESPN’s future is bright, which is of great comfort to anyone who cares deeply about our company.”