ME* Conference 2010

ESPN President Bodenheimer: 'We're Big' Is Not an Excuse

Despite Its Size, Company Is Always Thinking About How to Stay Ahead of Competition With Technology

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- ESPN is one of the world's most profitable media companies, with more than $3 billion in operating income each year. So where does George Bodenheimer, the Walt Disney Co. sports company's president, see its growth? Digital platforms, international territories and cutting-edge technology, for starters.

George Bodenheimer speaking at Ad Age's Media Evolved Conference in New York today.
George Bodenheimer speaking at Ad Age's Media Evolved Conference in New York today. Credit: Pete Kolonia
Speaking at Ad Age's Media Evolved Conference in New York with Ad Age Editor Abbey Klaassen, Mr. Bodenheimer said ESPN's mission since he joined the company nearly 30 years ago has always been to serve sports fans wherever they are. That's why the company's most recent ventures have been platforms such as first-of-their-kind apps on the Apple iPhone and iPad, streaming video sites such as ESPN3.com and a new 3-D cable network, ESPN 3D, with its launch partners at Sony. In entering any new technology or platform, Mr. Bodenheimer said the company has to remain competitive despite its size.

"I refuse to allow people to use 'We're big' as an excuse for anything," Mr. Bodenheimer said of the corporate culture he is cultivating at ESPN. "Companies with 1,000 employees are big to me, and we're at 7,000. We use the imagery of the little engine that could to talk to employees about our company, and constantly evoke a culture of ESPN from 20 year ago. "Roughly 25% of our employees weren't born when ESPN first started," he said. "We constantly talk to them about the culture of the company and how ESPN was the laughing stock of the cable industry 30 years ago long before we had any championships, master's tournaments or college football."

ESPN is also constantly looking over its shoulder at its competitors on all platforms -- including the pending Comcast-NBC Universal, which is widely expected to introduce a new strategy to more directly compete with ESPN at a national as well as local level. Mr. Bodenheimer said he was still waiting to see what the company's structure will look like, but was not concerned about the merger in the sense that he welcomes competition.

"People often preface these questions with, 'You don't really have competition.' Everybody that works at ESPN knows that's not true," he said. "It took me a long time to realize why people felt that way, and it's because nobody has a business like we do in all these different mediums. You'd better believe we have competitors in each one of these mediums that is ferocious. You can't have a plum business in media without having competition at every turn."

There are still a few technological innovations even ESPN hasn't conquered yet, such as interactive TV. After announcing plans to launch national TV applications such as My Bottom Line in 2008, plans have stalled at the moment in rolling out TV apps that provide interactivity to both viewers and advertisers. Mr. Bodenheimer pointed to what the network is doing with Microsoft's Xbox and voice-activated Kinect platform as a sign of how interactivity is playing out in different ways, even without participation from its more traditional cable and satellite partners.

"We look at technology as a friend, not a foe. Even though it can interrupt your models, my boss [Disney CEO] Bob Iger is embracing all these models and it has good potential for sports fans."

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