Legends Behind the Lens: Howard Katz
A humble man who sealed a reputation as one of the most powerful and versatile executives in sports TV history
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.
By Jason Dachman
During nearly five decades in the business, Howard Katz has earned a reputation as sports broadcasting’s true jack-of-all-trades, innovating and thriving in roles ranging from top production and programming executive to high-profile media-rights negotiator and NFL scheduling guru.
Currently SVP of Broadcast and Media Operations for the National Football League, Katz has played key production and programming roles over the years at IMG Trans World International, Ohlmeyer Communications Co. (OCC), and ESPN. In 1999, he was named president of ABC Sports, completing a full-circle career that began in 1971 at the house Roone Arledge built when he was hired as an ABC Sports production assistant.
“Sports was always an avocation for me, not a vocation,” he recollects. “In college, I was sports director of the radio station, sports editor of the newspaper, and an assistant in the sports information office, but I always intended on going to law school. I really never realized that sports could be a vocation in life.”
Even after catching on as a PA at ABC Sports following his graduation from Colgate University, the Livingston, NJ, native remained set on pursuing a career in law.
“I figured that [ABC Sports] sounded pretty cool; I could go to the Olympics and do that for a year or two, and then I would go to law school,” says Katz. “I learned a lot in those first couple years. I was a sports fanatic, but I didn’t know a thing about television, so I was wide-eyed and learned everything I could.”
Over the next three years, Katz labored his way up the ABC Sports ladder, working on a variety of properties — among them the 1972 Munich Olympics, Monday Night Football, and Wide World of Sports — before eventually earning the title of producer.
“I always loved getting him on my shows because he was a terrific talent,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer, who enlisted Katz as a PA and producer on a number of his ABC Sports productions. “All of us that shared the privilege of working at ABC Sports with Roone Arledge know that doing sports is about storytelling, and that was an important facet in Howard’s development. We all came out of that same womb.”
However, by 1974, after spending much of the previous three years on the road at ABC Sports and having just gotten married, Katz was looking for a change when fellow Hall of Famer and IMG Media EVP Barry Frank offered him a position at Trans World International (TWI), the television arm of IMG.
“I was heavily involved in the [television] side, but I got the opportunity to do everything you can think of at TWI,” says Katz. “I was exposed to all different aspects of the business for the first time.”
As VP of production and programming, Katz oversaw a laundry list of made-for-television sports and entertainment events, including The Superstars, The Superteams, and Battle of Network Stars.
“On my list of best of all time,” says Frank, “he’s right up there at the top.”
After nearly a decade at TWI, Katz’s old friend and fellow Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer came calling when he launched his company in 1983. As president of OCC, Katz oversaw the company’s portfolio of properties, as well as its production, advertising, and marketing services for events across the globe.
“In many ways, [Howard] is an unsung hero for the improvements he has made to our scheduling process. We produce far better, more attractive schedules now, thanks to Howard’s great work.” – NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
“The great thing about having Howard [at OCC] was that I trusted him implicitly. So whatever area he was stickhandling I knew I didn’t have to worry about,” says Ohlmeyer. “I have more respect for him than anyone else I know. He’s the brother I never had, and I would trust him with my life — I really would. I can count on him to tell me the truth no matter what he thinks and not sugarcoat it. And, conversely, if I ever needed some support, he was always there.”
During his 10 years at OCC, he helped create the wildly successful Skins Game and produced an eclectic mix of sports and entertainment properties, including the Orange Bowl Parade, Senior PGA Golf Tour, IndyCar Racing Tour, MTV Video Music Awards, Emmy Awards, Walt Disney World 4th of July Spectacular, Games People Play, and several TV movies.
In 1993, when Ohlmeyer sold OCC to ESPN, Katz agreed to head to the company’s Bristol, CT, headquarters and take over as EVP of production. He would go on to oversee an era of unparalleled growth there, helping to launch ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Radio, ESPN International, ESPN Classic, and ESPN Regional Television, as well as the X Games and ESPY Awards.
“One of the reasons that I was so interested in buying Ohlmeyer Communications in the first place was, we were going to get Howard Katz,” says NFL Network President/CEO and EVP of NFL Media Steve Bornstein, who was president/CEO of ESPN at the time. “He was the perfect guy to manage a culture at ESPN that was very difficult for an outsider coming in. He just rolled up his sleeves and became friends with the people, and they began to trust him. You’re nothing if you’re not a man of the people, which is exactly what Howard is.”
Six years later, Howard had a coming home of sorts when he was tapped to succeed Bornstein as president of ABC Sports, a property that was struggling to maintain its identity in the shadow of Disney-owned sibling ESPN.
“At that time, ABC Sports needed strong leadership and needed to feel good about itself again,” says Bornstein. “And Howard did that incredibly well.”
While at ABC, Katz oversaw the renewal of key rights deals for the Rose Bowl, British Open, and Indianapolis 500. He was also responsible for creating the Tiger Woods Primetime Golf Series and reinvigorating the Monday Night Football franchise with the hire of John Madden.
“We did everything we could to try to rebuild the ABC Sports brand, and, ultimately, it just became clear that the larger Disney strategy focused on ESPN,” admits Katz. “But I’m really proud of some of the things we created at ABC Sports in a very challenging environment.”
By 2003, the NFL was looking to expand its already lucrative media business by launching a dedicated network of its own. The league named Bornstein president of NFL Network, and he, in turn, brought on Katz to help launch the new network and run the business operations at NFL Films. Once NFL Network was up and running, Katz took on the added responsibility of overseeing the NFL Broadcasting department, including managing network partner relationships and creating the NFL schedule.
“The NFL has been the leading form of entertainment of any kind in this country for the last 20 years, but, in particular over the last seven or eight years, it’s gone to a whole new level,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Dick Ebersol. “And I don’t think there is anyone in the NFL from the commissioner to the owners who wouldn’t give a lot of credit for that to Howard Katz.”
Katz has relished his role as NFL scheduling guru, helping create the league’s successful flex-scheduling model and playing a key role in its ratings domination over the past decade.
“Howard Katz has been an outstanding contributor to the NFL,” says NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “In many ways, he is an unsung hero for the improvements he has made to our scheduling process. We produce far better, more attractive schedules now, thanks to Howard’s great work. With his vast network sport-television background, he also does an outstanding job of managing our broadcast relationships and overseeing NFL Films that, like any Hall of Famer, he makes it look easy.”
A father to sons Scott and Brett, Katz and wife Janet recently celebrated 40 years of marriage.
“What I love about Howard is, he has the utmost integrity and the immense experience to see the landscape better than most anyone,” says longtime friend and NFL VP of Media Operations Glenn Adamo. “The thing that makes broadcasters great is preparation, and that’s what sets Howard apart from most. He is always the most prepared person in the room, regardless of the situation.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2013. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.