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How a focus on mission and brand drove ratings growth at ESPN 

Former president George Bodenheimer on the company’s evolution.

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  May 4, 2017

Bodenheimer

George Bodenheimer

The year was 2002 and ESPN’s ratings were “tanking,” remembered George Bodenheimer, the network’s then-president.

As Bodenheimer made the rounds asking his top executives how to solve the problem, he got a “lot of blank stares.” He learned that most executives received company news through the ESPN communications and public relations department, which played up positive results, leaving his management team in the dark.

So Bodenheimer assembled the team to brainstorm solutions and someone suggested, “Why don’t we make raising ratings our top priority?” It wasn’t rocket science, Bodenheimer said. And just like that, “We rallied the management team and the whole company around simply setting priorities and communicating them to all 7,000 employees to encourage everyone to contribute to growing [the network] … then ESPN went on a ratings tear that lasted for 10 to 12 years unabated.”

In the years since, ESPN, which is owned by The Walt Disney Co., has faced other challenges, and recently announced 100 layoffs, including on-air and online talent. ESPN president John Skipper said ESPN’s content programming is continuing to evolve.

Bodenheimer, who retired in 2014 after a total of 33 years at ESPN, including 13 years as president, spoke on campus May 2 as a part of the Innovative Leadership Series sponsored by the MIT Leadership Center. In his talk, he explained how a focus on mission and brand helped make ESPN a household name.

“If you get these things right, you have a big head start on becoming a success,” he said.

Mission
Define your company’s mission, and then drive it home, Bodenheimer said. ESPN’s original mission was “Serve sports fans.” The mission evolved in the digital age to “Serve sports fans. Anywhere. Anytime.”

“It’s healthy to update your mission,” Bodenheimer said. “Don’t just set your mission and put it in your bottom desk drawer and think you are done. Get it out, keep it alive, and update it when you have to.”

Brand
Before ESPN existed, there was nothing like it, Bodenheimer said. The on-air talent had fun on camera and didn’t take themselves too seriously during gaffes and technical glitches. That combination of serious sports reporting and lightheartedness is what infused the sports network’s brand.

“Build and nurture your brand. Especially as the world is going digital. For every company out there … your competitor is a keystroke away. And that’s certainly true in the media business. And customers and fans will do business with companies where they know and respect the brand,” Bodenheimer said.

The “This is SportsCenter” advertising campaign that features athletes in ESPN’s Bristol, CT, headquarters — in hallways, offices, and the lunchroom — is 20 years old and still going strong. It’s another hallmark of the ESPN brand.

“Take advantage of everything you produce to communicate your brand and drive it home,” Bodenheimer said.