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Legends Behind the Lens: Steve Bornstein


Legends Behind the Lens: Steve Bornstein An architect of ESPN and the NFL Network, the media visionary is still shaping sports video entertainment today By Brandon Costa, Director of Digital

Friday, May 22, 2020 - 12:00 pm

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Story Highlights

The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.

Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times - with so many video-production professionals out of work - we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting


By Jason Dachman

Few would argue that the two most influential and powerful entities in the U.S. sports are ESPN and the NFL, and it would be hard to envision either without the contributions of Steve Bornstein. As the president/CEO of ESPN throughout its unprecedented growth in the 1990s and the first-ever president of NFL Network, Bornstein joined the pantheon of sports-media executives while cultivating a reputation as one of the most driven and competitive personalities the industry has ever seen.

Steve is one those pivotal people in the history of sports television, says fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer. He's a smart and tough negotiator, a tremendous leader, and one of the great innovators this business has ever seen. He simply knows how to position the side he's representing to be successful.

The Early Days in Wisconsin

The Fair Lawn, NJ, native began his career at the campus television station while attending the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

I think I caught the TV bug pretty early on, says Bornstein. My freshman year, they were building the communication-arts building across from my dorm room, and I ended up starting to work at the university TV station. It sort of took off from there.

After graduating in 1974, Bornstein bounced around local Wisconsin stations before taking on a three-year stint at WOSU-TV in Columbus, OH, working his way up to the station's executive producer. While in Columbus, he also produced Ohio State Buckeyes football telecasts for Warner-Amex Cable's groundbreaking QUBE interactive-cable-television venture, which served as the launchpad for Nickelodeon and MTV and introduced the concepts of pay-per-view and interactive TV services.

The Rise of the World Wide Leader in Sports

Legendary executive Bill Creasy played a key role in QUBE's development and became close with Bornstein, so, when he was tapped by Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Chet Simmons to run programming at the fledgling ESPN, he brought Bronstein with him.

Frankly, we were very close to going out of business in the early '80s, recounts Bornstein. It early became quite clear that we weren't going to be able to make any financial sense out of this unless we changed the model. As a result, ESPN really invented the whole business of affiliation fees for the cable industry. Ultimately, it was such a sound model that it obviously became the standard that the entire cable industry was built on.

Arriving just four months after the network launched, Bornstein would spend the next two decades helping transform ESPN into a sports-media heavyweight.

After moving through ESPN's programming and production ranks for 10 years, the 38-year-old Bornstein became the network's youngest president and CEO in 1990, adding the title of corporate VP of Capital Cities/ABC three years later.

Steve was the perfect person for that job at that time, says NFL SVP of Broadcasting/NFL Films COO Howard Katz, who served with Bornstein at ESPN, ABC, and the NFL. Were it not for Steve, I don't think ESPN would have seen the enormous growth that they have achieved.

He would go on to lead ESPN though one of its most prolific eras, overseeing the launch of ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN Radio,, ESPN Regional Television, and a variety of new properties, including the ESPY Awards and X Games, as well as unprecedented global expansion

With the way that the cable business and ESPN grew side-by-side in the '90s, Steve was the perfect leader for that decade, says ESPN on-air stalwart Chris Berman. We could have made a lot of wrong turns, but we didn't, and the proof is where we are today.

If he did nothing else from this point on, he would still go down as one of the greatest executives ever in sports media and the media industry at large. Howard Katz

In addition, Bornstein championed ESPN's launch of the V Foundation for Cancer Research with Jimmy Valvano in 1993. The master negotiator and programmer also played a key role in the extreme expansion of SportsCenter, the addition of college basketball and football programming, and, most important, the arrival of live NFL games in 1987.

Steve expected excellence, and that contributed to our culture, says ESPN EVP, Programming and Production, John Wildhack. It helped us set very high standards across the company in every way we ran our business and created our content.

In 1996, Bornstein became ESPN chairman and took on added oversight of ABC Sports, serving as president. By this point, thanks largely to its dual-revenue-stream model of advertising and subscription fees that Bornstein helped pioneer, ESPN had become a
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