Where No Sports Nut Has Gone Before

How programming whiz Mark Shapiro is remaking ESPN

Mark Shapiro, the 32-year-old executive remaking ESPN, may seem like a boy wonder. But in fact, he has had opinions about how to present sports to the public since third grade.

Shapiro's parents divorced when he was young, and although he lived with his father in Chicago, he would frequently visit his mom, Judith, an office administrator for Time-Life Inc. in New York. Young Mark especially liked accompanying her to work, where the hallways bustled with editors putting out magazines. "I grew up arguing with [former Executive Editor] Ray Cave about there being too many ads in Sports Illustrated," says Shapiro.

Now, Shapiro is in a similar driver's seat. Last month, ESPN promoted the high-energy programming prodigy to executive vice-president, the latest step in a career surging forward as fast as Marshall Faulk nearing the goal line. His new job puts him in charge of just about everything sports fans watch, and when they watch it, on the cable network.

Shapiro's tender age--he's only nine years older than ESPN itself--doesn't go unnoticed. "I'm old enough to be his dad," gasps longtime sports scribe Tony Kornheiser, co-host of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, one of the hottest of the dozen or so new programs Shapiro is blending into ESPN's lineup of sporting events and news.

For Shapiro, who started at ESPN working as a screener for a call-in show, age is a non-issue. "Alexander the Great conquered half the world in his teens," he says, rushing to add: "Please, I'm not comparing myself."

Shapiro may be no Alexander, but he'll need all that confidence and more. No less than Michael Eisner, CEO of Walt Disney Co., told an investor conference on Oct. 1: "We have other businesses, but they must be considered in the context of [the Disney and ESPN] brands." In other words, ESPN is crucial to Disney fortunes.

ESPN is already a way of life for many hard-core fans who groove on its wall-to-wall coverage of live sports events. Prime-time ratings were up 30% last summer, though ad sales are off and programming costs higher.

Now, Shapiro is out to convert casual sports fans into ESPN watchers using programs developed by ESPN Original Entertainment, which he heads. So far, EOE's prize is Pardon the Interruption, a quirky talk show on which Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon skewer sports figures and poke fun at each other. In its first year, PTI's ratings rose by 128%. ESPN is also talking with filmmaker Spike Lee about doing a drama series.

It hasn't all been hits for Shapiro, though. EOE laid an egg with Mohr Sports, a talk show starring comedian Jay Mohr that was aimed at twentysomethings. Shapiro pulled the plug in August after three schedule changes failed to ignite ratings. Mohr blames Shapiro's interference and has called the show "a train wreck from the beginning."

Still, if there is one format Shapiro should know, it's talk TV. His first and last on-air work was at Glenbrook South High School in suburban Chicago, where he hosted a weekly sports talk show on the school's public-access TV station. That hooked him on television, and while studying journalism at the University of Iowa, Shapiro nabbed a summer internship at NBC Sports.

After such heady tasks as running lunch orders at Wimbledon, Shapiro leveraged his gofer job into a full-time position. In 1993, he jumped to ESPN. Three years later, he was handed a plum assignment: coordinating producer of what became the highly successful documentary SportsCentury the 50 Greatest Athletes.

Shapiro bristles at the suggestion that his career is moving above the speed limit for TV execs. "As a small kid, I knew what I wanted to do. I just got started early," he says. O.K.--but even if Shapiro isn't in a hurry, it's probably not a great idea to get in his way.

By Mark Hyman with Tom Lowry

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