Keeler: ESPN boss can relate to network's baby steps
The Big Ten Network is off to a great start. If you live in Toledo.
So far, the largest cable provider to acquire the new sports channel - future home of Iowa games that you used to watch for free - is in the northwest corner of Ohio. Meanwhile, Mediacom, the biggest cable company in this state, reiterated Tuesday that it's still "negotiating" with affiliates from the network, which is slated to launch in August.
Hey. At least they're talking. Comcast and Time Warner, two of the largest cable outfits in the United States, are sticking out their tongues, drawing lines in the sand and daring commissioner Jim Delany to cross them.
"It's standard fare," George Bodenheimer explained. "Where it comes out, we'll see."
Bodenheimer feels their pain. To a point. The president of ESPN and ABC Sports has a good relationship with the most-watched college sports conference in the country - his family of networks recently signed a 10-year agreement with the Big Ten - but also realizes the trend among leagues is to try to go their own way.
"In effect, the Big Ten has changed their business plan," Bodenheimer said Tuesday morning in West Des Moines, where he was the keynote speaker at a business breakfast. "They're now competing with the hand that feeds them, in some respects. I think there's certainly enough food on the plate for everybody."
The Big Ten Network was just one of the topics on Bodenheimer's plate, a list that included:
- Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner: "Prides himself on being a micromanager," he said. "And extremely creative. Very creative."
- ABC's Saturday night college football package: "It was kind of sitting there, waiting for somebody to grab it. ESPN on ABC did and it turned out to be a very nice franchise."
- The spectre of the major American sports switching to pay-per-view: "I think (the options are) going to look more similar to today than different."
Bodenheimer understands the climate of change - and the challenge of pitching a new sports channel to skeptical cable outlets. Early on in his ESPN career, he'd moved to Texas to handle affiliate sales for the fledging network in the South and Southwest.
He joked that the only reason he got that job in the first place was because "I was the only one in the company who applied for it."
Of course, that was some two decades ago, the dark ages before Dick Vitale and Lee Corso became household names. Nowadays, ESPN has more than 90 million subscribers to its original channel alone. It has transcended into iconic status, an American brand name as recognizable as Chevrolet or Coca Cola, a heavyweight in online content, magazines, clothing, restaurants and, more recently, cellular phones.
"We don't know exactly what technology is going to come out next," Bodenheimer said. "But whatever it is, ESPN's stated goal is to be there and serve the fan."
To that end, Bodenheimer brought along a couple of video clips as part of his presentation. The most interesting one also happened to be the oldest.
It was the opening three or so minutes of the first broadcast day ever at ESPN, way back on Sept. 7, 1979. Anchor Lee Leonard declared that Bristol, Conn. - a town roughly the size of Council Bluffs - would become the center of the sports world.
He also mentioned that coming up next would be slow-pitch softball. The lesson? Never, ever judge a song by the first verse alone.