MACON – From delivering mail to overseeing the day-to-day operations of a global media giant, ESPN Executive Chairman George Bodenheimer shared the story of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network – a story in which he played an integral role for much of the past 33 years – at the finale of Mercer University's 2013-2014 Executive Forum, presented by BB&T, on May 29 in Hawkins Arena.
"I'm a mailroom guy… I like to keep things simple," said Bodenheimer, referring to his first job at ESPN just 16 months after the network's launch. "I think there have been three keys to ESPN's success over 35 years, and I think these same keys can apply, in this case, to universities or certainly to all businesses in the United States and around the world. And they are mission, brand and culture."
Bodenheimer announced two days earlier that he would be leaving ESPN at the end of May to focus on fundraising efforts for The V Foundation for Cancer Research, which he helped to create in 1993 with the late Jim Valvano, former N.C. State men's basketball coach and ESPN colleague. Bodenheimer was ESPN's longest-tenured president (1998-2012) and became its first executive chairman on Jan. 1, 2012, providing strategic direction for ESPN's global business.
Since he became president, ESPN has grown to eight domestic television networks, 12 HD services, one 3-D network, nearly 100 million households for ESPN and ESPN 2, 48 international television networks, 13 international SportsCenter editions, 18 websites, 750 ESPN Radio affiliates nationwide and 7,000 employees worldwide.
Bodenheimer's path to leadership mirrors the rise of ESPN. He began as a mailroom driver at a network that he recalls being the laughingstock of the television business for a decade before it took off. Another of Bodenheimer's jobs was to offer the network and its broadcasts of softball and Australian rules football to cable providers across the Southwest for free.
"We take our sports seriously, but we do not take ourselves too seriously. We like to laugh, and we like to laugh at ourselves," he said after showing a blooper reel to those in attendance. "But really, it's so important to know what your brand is, to know how you're perceived, to know what your strengths are – and to build on that – to nurture your brand every which way you can."
Some 30 years later, ESPN has broadcast rights to many of the world's most popular sporting events, such as The Masters, the NBA Finals and the new College Football Playoff that will begin next season.
He credits that rise to a combination of the network's mission – to serve sports fans – as well as its brand – sports with authority and personality – and its culture, which is defined by characteristics like optimism, passion, integrity, family and teamwork. The culture, he said, is ESPN's strategic advantage.
"If you pull all that together, you'll develop a winning culture that breeds and feeds success, where the employees expect to be successful, whether they work for an organization like Mercer University or ESPN," said Bodenheimer.
Bodenheimer's presentation was co-presented by the Mercer Athletic Foundation in celebration of the most successful year in terms of both athletic success and financial support for athletics in the history of the University. Cox Communications, Raymond James Financial and Mercer Dining Services served as sponsors for the event.
The Executive Forum is a membership organization composed of businesses, organizations and individuals. Events are by invitation only to members. For more information on membership, call (800) 837-2911 or (478) 301-2943, or visit forum.mercer.edu/membership/.
About the Executive Forum, presented by BB&T
The Executive Forum, presented by BB&T, is a business outreach program of Mercer University's Eugene W. Stetson School of Business and Economics and the Office of University Advancement. The Executive Forum provides business professionals with an opportunity to hear nationally noted speakers while networking with other business leaders. For more information, call Mercer's Office of University Advancement at (800) 837-2911 or (478) 301-4169, or visit forum.mercer.edu/.
About the Mercer Athletic Foundation
Established in 2008, the Mercer Athletic Foundation is the fundraising arm of the Mercer Athletic Department. Its mission is to raise funds to help increase athletic scholarships, upgrade facilities and recruit and retain top-level coaches. For more information, call (478) 301-4003 or visit www.mercerbears.com/foundation.