When he retired from his role as Executive Chairman of ESPN in May 2014, George Bodenheimer wrapped up a remarkable 33-year career, which began in the company’s mailroom in 1981. Consistent and substantive growth defined George’s career, leading to unprecedented success. His leadership style was simple but effective: empower all employees to take charge of their careers and to base decisions on the company’s stated mission: “Serve Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”
Serve Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.
George is an ESPN and cable industry pioneer and, as the company’s longest-tenured President (13 years, 1998–2012), he led an unprecedented period of global growth. He oversaw all multimedia sports assets of The Walt Disney Company, including ABC Sports, from 2003 to 2011; and was co-chair, Disney Media Networks, from 2004 to 2011.
Like ESPN itself, George is a Connecticut native. He grew up in Greenwich, not far from Bristol, where his father managed a department store, and his mother was a bank teller. He calls his parents his heroes, and credits their inspiration in his success. He earned a degree in economics at Denison University, and wanted to work in sports and entertainment. After graduating, he sent letters to Madison Square Garden and every Major League Baseball team. “I got 28 letters back saying, ‘I don’t think so,’” George says.
The advice of a family friend led to an interview at a fledgling cable TV network called “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.” George recalls an intimidating human resources director sizing him up. “I was standing and he was sitting, and I don’t think he looked up at me once,” George recalls. “He said I was qualified to be a driver. So I began delivering the mail and working in the mailroom.” He also served as a driver for on-air personalities. It was a perfect beginning for the enthusiastic youngster. “I got to meet everybody,” he says.
As ESPN expanded, George applied for an open Sales and Marketing position and hit the road, selling the network to local cable operators across five states. “I learned that every town in America considers itself a ‘sports town,’ and every city in the world thinks the same way. ESPN was tapping into that.”
Working his way through the ranks, he became executive vice president of sales and marketing in 1996, before being named the network’s fifth president in 1998. He held this role until 2012, when he stepped down from day-to-day operations.
While President, his vision led to company- and industry-leading innovations in integrated sales and marketing, original programming, acquisitions, and new technologies. At the same time, he solidified and enhanced ESPN’s position as The Worldwide Leader in Sports.
George’s tenure at ESPN saw an explosion in cable sports broadcasting, as the ESPN family of networks grew from a single channel to multiple domestic networks and dozens of international networks, as well as hundreds of radio affiliates and a massive online and publishing presence. He also oversaw major investments in new broadcasting technologies.
George elevated the company’s numerous corporate outreach initiatives, most notably The V Foundation for Cancer Research, which was founded by ESPN and the late basketball coach and commentator Jim Valvano. The V Foundation has raised more than $150 million since 1993, and 100 percent of cash donations go directly to research.
He also championed an impressive increase in ESPN employee volunteerism during his tenure as President, highlighted by more than 30,000 hours of service given as part of the company’s 30th anniversary efforts.
Following his retirement from Disney, he continues to serve on the boards of several corporations, Denison University, and The V Foundation. “It’s a very competitive business we’re in… but our culture at ESPN is something we can control. I think of it as: always operate with integrity, respect for your co-workers, and passion about what we’re doing here.”