Online Extra: Why Mark Shapiro Left ESPN

The key exec calls it one of the best jobs in America -- but he's gambling that chance to turn around Six Flags will be even better

In 12 years at ESPN, Mark Shapiro may never have ventured into the anchor chair on SportsCenter, but the prolific programming and production exec, who departed the cable network on Oct. 3, certainly left his mark. On his watch, ESPN launched ESPN Original Entertainment, a controversial venture that has spun off some of its most profitable shows, including the edgy talk show Pardon the Interruption.

Shapiro, 35, also led ESPN negotiations with pro sports leagues, alienating some execs with his in-your-face style. As he prepares to join Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to become the new CEO at Red Zone LLC, an investment group seeking management control of amusement-park chain Six Flags (PKS ), Shapiro sat down for an interview with Mark Hyman, BusinessWeek's contributing editor for sports business. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Will you try to lure away co-workers at ESPN to join you at Red Zone?

First, I have no intention of doing that. Second, where would they leave for? Right now we have an investment firm hoping we can have some operating influence at Six Flags.

It's being speculated that you left ESPN for a financial windfall, as much as $10 million in guaranteed salary and bonuses. Was that the top reason?

I would never, ever leave what I view as one of the best jobs in America unless the potential job opportunity was ideal. When I say ideal, I mean more than money. The subject matter has to be something I'm passionate about.

If somebody said to me tomorrow: "You can run a bottled-water company, and we'll give you $20 million up front," I wouldn't do it. I've got to love what I'm doing. I'm not leaving from ESPN. I'm leaving to go somewhere. There's a big difference.

Describe your relationship with Disney (DIS ) CEO Bob Iger.

How can you not be a big fan of Bob Iger if you work for ESPN? He knows and loves sports. He's incredibly supportive of everything we do. Best of all, he gives us lots of room to run, take risks, and experiment.

In 2004, you turned down Iger's request to become the No. 2 at ABC Entertainment. Did that strain the relationship?

I didn't believe there was any ill will when the [ABC Entertainment] thing didn't work out.... He has responded to my e-mails lickety-split since then. Very supportive of everything I wanted to do.

After you say no to a guy like that, when the boss is reaching out to you, you keep your antenna up to see if there is any ill will or any lasting inference that could be construed as negative or bitter. I never saw one ounce of that from Bob.... Honestly, I don't have anything negative to say about Bob Iger.

Any thought about going back to Disney someday?

I've had people ask if that's my plan. That's not my plan. I'm into this because I'm hoping Dan [Snyder] has an influential stake in Six Flags, and we can turn around the company and make shareholders a lot of money...and then you decide what you want to do.

You were deeply involved in ESPN's recent negotiations with the NFL, which resulted in a mixed bag for ESPN and ABC. In the new deal, ESPN takes over Monday Night Football from ABC, and ESPN relinquishes Sunday Night Football to NBC. Are you satisfied with that outcome?

If you could get them both [Sunday and Monday night games] at a good price, of course you want to keep the status quo. But given the competition out there, I applaud Bob and his strategy. Which is not to lose $200 million a year anymore on Monday Night Football on ABC.

If [the NFL wasn't] going to come down to meet my price, I'll pay what I have to pay, but I'm going to take the biggest property in sports [Monday Night Football] and put it under the biggest brand in sports [ESPN]. I like that strategy. I wanted them both if you could get them for a decent price. Once it was clear there were so many competitors....

Even though NBC is back in the game, after not having the NFL in recent years?

The outcome is that NBC is now paying more than ABC was paying and is going to lose more money. They will -- there's no other way around that.

One of your last decisions was not to renew ESPN's rights deal with the National Hockey League. Why was that the right move?

ESPN isn't in a position to own everything. We were losing money on the NHL. It was a damaged brand. If losing the NHL made it so that ESPN could renew its baseball deal, and improve the deal, and have a shot at getting's a smart sacrifice.

What are your thoughts about Outdoor Life Network [owned by ESPN rival Comcast (CMCSA )] acquiring rights to the NHL?

It's a smart deal for them. OLN desperately needed product. Even though the NHL doesn't rate, it's a lot of tonnage with still some very attractive marquee value. Raises the consciousness of [Comcast's] brand, brings some new viewers. Not bad.

You have very publicly -- too publicly some have said -- urged the NHL and Commissioner Gary Bettman to make changes in the game to lure back fans and improve hockey on TV. The NHL has since adopted one of those ideas -- tiebreakers. Looking back, should you have been as outspoken?

What's there to argue with? Did the labor strike hurt the NHL? Yes. Did it damage the brand? Yes. Was the sport having problems with ratings before the lockout? Yes. Is it going to be a difficult, long road back because they lack personalities? Yes. Did they need these rules [changes] to make it a more appealing game? Yes.

Was it politic to say that?

It might be politic to lie, but I don't subscribe to that theory.... I said it in a very respectful way: "[ESPN] still values the NHL. The NHL had problems, here's what they are." We still want to do a deal on smart economic terms. Are they worth $60 million? No, they're not.

I hope the NHL is a monster hit on OLN. Why? Because when they come back around, they'll be worth more, and ESPN will be at the table to pay something relative to their value. Anything good for sports is good for ESPN.

What qualities should your former boss, ESPN President George Bodenheimer, be looking for in your replacement?

Whoever he hires, more than anything, has to be a person who is a leader, who makes decisions, and inspires people -- and is willing to take many chances. That's what that place needs, and that's how it thrives.

You need somebody who has courage, who makes decisions, who responds to people. That's the biggest thing. I'm not saying I was all those things, by the way.

In Dan Snyder, you're joining someone with a reputation for being an independent thinker, and not easy to work for. Did you check his references?

There's what you read and what you get. I'm not going to say everything you read, there's no truth to it. I've been with him. Our wives know each other. He's a family man, which I love. Great children. I have met his mom. She is salt of the earth. And his best friend in life is his dad.

In your mind, that's revealing of what?

Anyone who puts so much stock in his family can't be half-bad. Beyond that, he is extremely loyal to anyone he works with or who works for him. He has made people a lot of money. He's a winner. And he wears his emotions on his sleeve. If you don't like everything he says, at least he's not lying to you. I admire that.

He's not going to tell you what you want to hear. That might rub some people the wrong way, reminds me of a lot of the stuff I read about myself. If you're young and have any measure of success, people are immediately intimidated, or you immediately get the "brash" stamp. That's the first word, and it could be followed by "cocky."

Edited by Rod Kurtz

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