01 Dec 2011

Knowing the Score

Putting MBA skills into play, whatever the game
by James Andrew Miller


Having spent much of my time since graduating from HBS working in television or writing books or movies, I’m often asked why I went to business school in the first place, and whether I regretted it in the second. The truth is, I never thought of Harvard’s MBA Program as some kind of glorified placement center; rather, I hoped that the knowledge I gained would benefit me repeatedly throughout my career, whatever that might turn out to be.

And it has. Perhaps the most surprising example occurred fairly recently, as I worked on the book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, which came out in May. Mind you, I really didn’t need my MBA to discover that two of the network’s biggest on-air personalities, Chris Berman and Tony Kornheiser, hate each other or to understand why columnist Bill Simmons got to be one of the biggest stars in the ESPN galaxy. Likewise with many other behind-the-scenes stories.

Since the book was to be a comprehensive history of one of the greatest media successes of all time, it required a thorough examination of the business story behind it. How did it all happen? ESPN, which today boasts annual revenues of more than $8.5 billion, was started in 1978 with $9,000 on a credit card by a man named Bill Rasmussen, who got pushed out the door in less than a year. That early exit brought to mind John Kao’s class on entrepreneurship, where we learned that those who may have had brilliant notions don’t always wind up being the best operators of a new business.

I have been fascinated with ways companies brand themselves ever since my first-year Marketing class. That exposure informed many of my interview questions aimed at exploring ESPN’s near-legendary “This Is SportsCenter” advertising campaign—still one of the most creative promotions any network has ever produced about itself—and the methodology behind it.

ESPN has had many corporate owners over the years, and the famous edict of Watergate’s “Deep Throat” to “follow the money” became my mantra in attempting to trace the pedigree of the network’s formidable financial might. The knowledge base required to fully understand the various takeovers and rights deals originated back in corporate finance class. Since Disney’s purchase of ESPN in 1996, management has chosen never to break out ESPN’s annual earnings separately from the mother ship’s. The treasure hunt to isolate ESPN’s actual financial picture was greatly aided by what I’d gleaned from accounting and other financial reporting classes.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of all came about as the result of a course that many students underestimate. Organizational Behavior was widely considered “easy,” even though it was our section’s good fortune to have the estimable Linda Hill teaching it. The valuable, practical wisdom she imparted provided a working framework for understanding the behavior (and misbehavior) of many who passed through ESPN’s doors over the years, and led me to ask questions about how people treated each other in the workplace, along with how and why some rose to the top while others languished in the nether regions. It is quite possible that OB is one of the most important courses in the MBA Program. After all, a lot of people can run cash flows, create marketing campaigns, etc., but as ESPN proves, fewer can retain and apply the lessons of good organizational behavior.

When the book was first published, much of the initial interest—surprise!—had to do with backstage tales of sex, drugs, and partying. Since then, however, I’ve been particularly pleased to see the business side of the story getting more and more attention. Imagine that.

James Andrew Miller (MBA ’88) served as senior executive producer of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° and EVP of original programming at USA Network. He also cowrote Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live and is the author of Running in Place: Inside the Senate, based in part on his experience as an aide to Senator Howard Baker. He lives and writes in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

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Class of MBA 1988, Section A
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