Legends Behind the Lens: Joe Cohen

The master negotiator paved the way for sports' cable explosion

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 sportsbroadcastfund.org.

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Joseph M. Cohen has no shortage of firsts — and seconds and thirds — in the TV business. He negotiated the first-ever cable-rights contracts with the NBA, NHL, and MLB; started two television networks (MSG and USA); and bought HTN, the company he later sold to the Switch in 2013, three times.

Currently president of The Switch Sports, the sports-television pioneer has lent his expertise to professional-sports franchises, cable, radio, arena operations, and stadium development from New York to Los Angeles, and every arena in between. And that long list of visionary accomplishments is part of the reason Cohen will be inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame on Dec. 13 in New York City.

A native of Queens, NY, Cohen earned a BS in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. At Penn’s Wharton School of Business, he was tasked with writing a thesis, and a professor suggested focusing on something that was fun.

“I did it on the Flyers and Sixers and how they competed for the leisure-time dollar of the Philadelphia sports fan,” he recalls. “When it came time to go to work, I followed the same philosophy and decided not to go into the family business. I had an offer to work for the Dodgers and an offer to work for Madison Square Garden. I took the MSG job in 1969, and here I am now — with no regrets and a career of great experiences.”

He began working as assistant to the MSG VP of operations during his final semester of graduate school, supervising union workers and security, negotiating labor contracts, and overseeing the electricians and box office. After several promotions, in 1975, Cohen was named VP of MSG Cable and VP of development for the Garden.

Two Networks, Two Launches
“In 1979,” he says, “we put together MSG Cable, MSG Broadcast, MSG Advertising, and HTN [then called Hughes Television Network] — which was then a production company that was part of Paramount Pictures — and formed Madison Square Garden Network.”

As president of MSG Network, Cohen was responsible for advertising, sales, production, and program development, as well as broadcast and cable operations for all Garden events. While running the MSG cable network, he worked with Bob Rosencrans to co-found the USA Network, which had the out-of-market rights to 85 Knicks and Rangers games, distributed by satellite.

“We had no TV to speak of in the regular season. Our games were tape delayed during the Finals. Then, all of a sudden, we had two primetime games on a Thursday night. We were off and running to the point where, today, cable is the predominant way of delivering not only the NBA and most sports. That really goes back to Joe Cohen’s vision for USA Network.” – former NBA commissioner David Stern

Though founded within a few years of each other, the two networks were very different. “MSG was local rights; USA was out-of-market rights,” he points out. Shortly after USA launched, he adds, “the leagues changed the rules so the home teams didn’t own the game. The leagues took back the copyright, so that they could make cable deals. USA bid against ESPN, and we got the original cable deal in the very early ’80s for the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball.”

HTN, the Sequel
After founding USA, Cohen continued to run MSG Network while also overseeing MSG’s 50% interest in USA Network and doing development projects for MSG Corp. In 1985, he left to form an investment group that — in a bit of déjà vu for Cohen — purchased Hughes Television Network from the Garden.

“We scrambled the backhaul signals that created the product that the leagues now sell as MLB Extra Innings, NHL Center Ice, and NBA Game Time packages,” he says. “Scrambling the signals created that product that has now become big business for the leagues.”

Cohen served as president and CEO of HTN for a year before purchasing Z Channel in Los Angeles in 1987.

“I bought control of the Los Angeles movie network, and I put the Dodgers, Angels, and Clippers on Z Channel, along with the movies,” he says. “In 1989, we sold HTN to IDB, which no longer exists, and sold Z Channel to Rainbow, which was going to turn it into Sports Channel Los Angeles.”

MSG, Part 2
In 1989, Cohen began working as a consultant for Ed Snider’s Spectacor and, in 1991, was named president of Spectacor West and CEO of Spectacor Films. Then, he bought the L.A. Kings In 1993, sold them in 1995, and returned to MSG, where he was head of MSG Network.

As EVP, Cohen was responsible for MSGN, Fox SportsNet New York, and MSG Radio. In 1998, he supervised implementation of MSGN’s HDTV capabilities, making MSG the first regional sports network to feature live event telecasts in HD.

“We were doing 200 events in HD at that time,” he points out. “I’m really proud of being a pioneer of HD.”

Cohen’s pioneering also involved being the principal architect of Sportstime Ohio.

Making The Switch
In 2003, Cohen yet again purchased HTN, which, until being acquired by The Switch in 2013, was the longest-tenured sports-television and radio-transmission provider in North America. HTN, now The Switch, has transmitted every professional game produced for Madison Square Garden, NESN, MASN, and Altitude Sports & Entertainment; every Yankee game for YES Network; and Ballpark Cam for Major League Baseball Network (MLBN).

The company currently provides service for all NBA and MLB games telecast on ESPN and serves Major League Soccer for transmission of every game from each MLS stadium. The Switch also transmits all NHL games for NBC and NBC Sports Network (NBCSN). In 2016, the Switch was the primary provider of video and data service for Super Bowl 50 and launched its innovative mobile transport solution, Point-of-Presence-In-A-Trailer, providing video and data service for CBS coverage of the PGA Tour. Plans call for POP-In-A-Trailer to be used for PGA and NASCAR events in 2017 and beyond.

“Every customer has their own particular requirements,” Cohen explains. “We are concerned with satisfying each customer with their varying needs and staying ahead of the industry. The environment is changing fast, and it is up to us to be on the cutting edge of technology and maintain our industry-leading customer service.”

A Life-Long Attachment
Over the course of his career, Cohen has worked in sports television from all angles, serving broadcasters, teams, leagues, even stadiums and arenas. From 1976 to ’85, he served on television committees for both the NHL and NBA, representing the Rangers and Knicks. He helped negotiate the NHL’s contract with ESPN and is currently an advisor to the Los Angeles mayor’s commission studying construction of a new football stadium in Los Angeles. Of all his accomplishments, the pride of his career, he says, is the two networks he can call his own.

“When you found something, that’s yours forever,” he says. “You’re right there at the beginning, and you have that attachment to it.”

The same could be said of Joe Cohen and sports. Having begun his career in sports television more than 40 years ago, he has been attached to the industry, in one way or another, for five decades, leaving an indelible mark on it.

The video in this profile was originally produced in 2016. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.