by John D. Hubbard
The ball is in Howard Katz's court. So are the puck, racquet and bat.
As executive vice president of ESPN, Katz '71 is adroit at keep-ing balls in the air and objects d'athletics on the air.
Since joining the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" five years ago, Katz has been a major player in a series of innovations that have greatly expanded the innovative cable network. Katz helped launch ESPN2, ESPNEWS, the ESPYs and an hour-long edition of SportsCenter.
"I'm responsible for everything that goes on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS," says Katz in his office at the sprawling complex in Bristol, CT. That amounts to a staggering 12,444 hours of original programming a year compared to the maybe 300 hours of sports aired by the traditional broadcast networks.
"In my spare time I'm responsible for ESPN Radio and ESPN International. Somehow I need to keep an open eye on what we're doing in Argentina, Mexico and Asia."
Three office televisions are on so that Katz can keep his other eye peeled for anything that doesn't look just right on ESPN, the deuce and the round-the-clock news broadcast.
Not that he's staring. Katz, in addition to overseeing the remote and studio production efforts, is a member of the ESPN Board of Directors, serves as general manager of OCC Sports (formerly Ohlmeyer Communications, the multimedia company Katz ran for 10 years before joining ESPN) and is generally involved in everything from rights acquisitions to talent negotiations to the startup of nearly every new project.
Katz kept busy beyond his economics major with sports at Colgate. He was a manager, sports director of WRCU and sports editor of the Colgate News. Katz also worked in the sports information department, virtually running the publicity effort when Colgate hosted the NCAA hockey tournament in Syracuse. His work caught the attention of Syracuse University sports information director Larry Kimball, who recommended Katz to ABC Sports for a Munich Olympics research position.
Beginning at ABC
In 1983 Katz teamed up with Don Ohlmeyer for what he calls, "A great ten years," during which the company produced sports but also movies of the week and "quality award shows." ESPN bought OCC in 1993 and Katz came east in the deal as a senior vice president. By November 1994 he was named executive vice president of production.
"I didn't have a clue what was in store," says Katz, who has been at the center of a whirlwind of ESPN growth. The square-footage of the Bristol facility tripled and there was a quadrupling of personnel, not to mention the necessity of those three TV sets.
"Five years ago there was no competition. There was no CNN SI, no Fox News, no Internet venture. Maintaining our incredibly high level of expectations is difficult."
Katz is in the office by eight and routinely stays until at least seven but the sun never sets on ESPN. He talks about the ever-expanding day and quickly mentions the importance of an understanding family -- his wife of 25 years, Janet, and sons Scott and Brett.
"The overwhelming nature of the volume, that's what's numbing," says Katz, who tries to step back to see the big picture, not an easy task while putting out fires all day at "Aggravation Central," as Katz semi-affectionately refers to his office.
"What makes you proudest is when you can achieve excellence within that volume."
The climate has changed drastically in Katz's world. "When I started at ABC the stakes were much different. The stakes are so much higher now and the responsibility so great when the company makes a $9.2 billion investment buying the rights to the NFL. It's a business about sports and about games but it's a much more serious business than it was 27 years ago. It's gratifying, but unfortunately `fun' isn't a word I use a whole lot."
It is Katz who has to decide who goes where, how to most effectively use the relationship of ESPN and ABC, make the decisions about priorities among hard working and loyal troops who have their own ideas about what comes first. "That's my challenge. That and effectively managing a very, very big budget."
There are other tough calls in Katz's day, with conflicts never far from the sur"helvetica, sans-serif". Covering a story on SportsCenter about a team ESPN has a rights agreement with, taking a stance on controversial issues such as violence and race, sending a documentary crew to do a piece on the sneaker shops in Southeast Asia.
"The business is intertwined in ways you wouldn't have considered 15 or 20 years ago. Trying to navigate this large production company through a maze of potential conflicts, that's difficult. There's never a dull moment," says Katz, which is exactly what a business that produces more than 12,000 annual hours of programming is banking on.
Katz can go deep, take it downtown and work the boards. He paints the corners, tiptoes down the sidelines and has a great glove hand. He isn't afraid to go inside, parks in the slot and can take a punch. He'll bury the three, throw the bomb, go to the net and putt for dough.
Howard Katz is a gamer and he comes to play. HE-COULD-GO-ALL-THE-WAY. Da da dum.