Athletics mean so much to us in America.
Thirty-three years ago this passion gave birth to a novel idea: a TV network devoted solely to sports. I was fortunate to land there about thirty-two years ago when the prospects for the network were uncertain at best.
I was offered a job in the mail room, and I didn’t know whether I should take it. I drove sixty miles back from Bristol, Connecticut, to my home after the interview, thinking, “What am I going to tell my dad?”
I didn’t tell him the interview lasted about three minutes—I’m not sure the interviewer ever looked up at me. But nevertheless I asked my dad what he thought I should do if I got an offer. He gave me the best advice I’d ever received: “If sports television is a business that you want to be in, then you should absolutely accept the job if offered. Forget the salary, immediate duties, and all that.”
Fortunately, I accepted his advice to make a career decision, not a money decision, and about a week later I was delivering the mail at ESPN, moving boxes, and shuttling Dick Vitale to the airport and back.
Eighteen months later I was transferred to our three-person sales office in Arlington, Texas. My job was to travel throughout Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi, calling on mom-and-pop cable operators and trying to sell them this new idea of a twenty-four-hour sports station. The motels that I stayed in during those days had many benefits. Among them, you rarely needed a reservation. You also could keep an eye on your car at night because it was parked just a few feet from the room where you were sleeping. I remember vividly checking into one hotel with a big sign behind the front desk that said, “No pheasant cleaning in the rooms.”
ESPN was indeed a start-up in those days, and we operated on a very tight expense budget. Our programming budget was also extremely tight. Our staples in those days were boxing, softball, college hockey, racing, and karate, but tape-delay college football was our number-one product.
Despite the audience size, which was truly miniscule, we were starting to reach fans. After a few years our company began to grow. Most representative of the growth was the quality of the hotels where we stayed. I knew that the company had made it when I was allowed to check in at a Marriott.
In those days I learned something that was extremely valuable to ESPN. I learned that every town in this country considers itself a sports town. Sports play an integral role in all of our communities. Athletics and its popularity enabled ESPN to grow worldwide. We’ve worked very hard to build our company the past three decades, and we’re extremely proud of it.
I see a number of connections between ESPN and BYU, and I’d like to single out three of them. Probably the most important is the focus on integrity. I know how important it is to you. We feel the same way at ESPN, and I can assure you that, in the last thirteen years as president, nothing—no win, no loss, no contract, no sales report—was more important to me than running a company known for integrity. Leaders are faced with many difficult decisions, and the best leaders do what is right versus what is expedient.
Next I see a similarity in our giving back—obviously through the work you do here and all your church does in giving back. ESPN also is committed to giving back. We have a thriving ESPN corporate outreach department that encourages our employees to work on whatever charity they feel strongly about. We support them and give them time off work. We’ve also raised $100 million since 1993 along with the V Foundation for Cancer Research.
Last is the importance of family. ESPN is run like a family company. People often say, “You’ve got a company with seven thousand people. What does that really mean?” We run a 24/7 company; it’s a difficult thing. We work hard to schedule our people so they can attend their children’s athletics events or church events. Whatever’s important to them, we make important to us. We can’t do it all the time for everybody, but they know that our company and our management stand for trying to do that. When somebody is sick or has an accident, our company offers support to the best of its ability and fellow employees come out of the woodwork to help. In essence, we take care of one another, just like a family. It’s ingrained in our culture, and it continues to serve us well.
The values of integrity, the spirit of giving back, and the importance of family are universal and everlasting. It’s organizations like the NAC, the Marriott School, and BYU that help make up the fabric of this great country.
From when Bodenheimer took over as president in 1998 until he became executive chairman in 2012, ESPN added:
|130||ESPN Radio affiliates nationwide|
|63||million households for ESPN and ESPN2|
|28||international television networks|
|13||international SportsCenter editions|
|4||domestic television networks|
Speech given by George Bodenheimer
About the Speaker
George Bodenheimer is executive chairman for ESPN. This text is taken from remarks he gave when receiving the Marriott School’s International Executive of the Year award on 27 September 2012.