Legends Behind the Lens: Steve Anderson
One of the early architects of ESPN, he laid a foundation for sports television culture
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 ESPN’s first 35 years, few — if any — individuals had a greater hand in crafting the network’s production philosophy and content strategy than Steve Anderson. From building SportsCenter into the gold standard of sports-news programs to launching new cable networks to overseeing thousands of ESPN’s live game productions, Anderson’s fingerprints can be seen today across ESPN’s expansive programming portfolio.
“Steve’s place in ESPN’s legacy is considerable and concrete,” says legendary ESPN commentator and fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee Bob Ley. “From producing the epic #1 Georgetown vs. #2 St. John’s college basketball game in 1985 to teaming with John A. Walsh to mold SportsCenter into its modern form and leading at the highest executive levels in connection with ESPN’s most important properties and projects. But, more important, Steve is universally admired for how he led, the care he constantly demonstrated for his team members, and his forthright nature. No one, in my experience, has ever been more respected, and rightfully so.”
The Early Days: From Hardcourt to Production Truck
Brooklyn-born Anderson grew up in Tenafly, NJ, in a sports-friendly household with his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson; his mother, Maureen; and three siblings. After graduating from Xavier High School in New York City, Anderson played basketball at College of the Holy Cross and envisioned a career as a college basketball coach. However, after a short stint as an assistant coach at Fordham University, his aspirations turned to sports television.
“I was getting opportunities to be a runner for NBC for baseball games in New York but nothing concrete,” says Anderson. “Then I heard about this little cable company starting up in Connecticut, and I was fortunate enough to know [ESPN pioneers and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famers] Chet Simmons and Scotty Connal from NBC, and they hired me in April of 1980. I was taking a chance on a 24-hour sports cable network that very few, including myself, thought was going to make it, but I was absolutely thrilled.”
Anderson’s three-plus decades in Bristol began modestly as a PA on the SportsCenter night shift.
“All I knew was, I was getting a chance to work in television sports and to learn a tremendous amount right away,” he recounts. “Every day, we were working so hard and just hoping the place was going to make it. You hear all the old ESPN stories about the one small building and people working in trailers, but I didn’t even think twice about it. I was just excited to be there.”
A year into his tenure at ESPN, Anderson snagged an associate-producer gig in the Remote Production Department under Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Bill Fitts. He quickly found his way to the front bench, producing an eclectic mix of events, including cross-country, senior tennis, horse show jumping, and boxing. Soon he moved to higher-profile properties, such as the NBA, NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, college football, and the USFL.
Taking Over the Gridiron: Arrival of the NFL on ESPN
In 1986, when ESPN won the rights to the NFL’s new Sunday Night Football package, Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Steve Bornstein tapped Anderson as coordinating producer for the NFL. He would oversee the first two years of ESPN’s NFL-game coverage, as well as production of the network’s groundbreaking Sunday studio shows: NFL GameDay (which would become NFL Countdown) and NFL PrimeTime led by Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Chris Berman and Tom Jackson.
“Steve…is one of the most talented production executives in the industry — smart, creative, and a tremendous leader. He was the driving force behind key accomplishments and innovations at both ABC and ESPN.” – Jodi Markley, EVP, Content Operations & Creative Services, ESPN
“Our initial goal was to be considered just good as any other network doing NFL games,” says Anderson. “But what really set us apart early on were the studio shows, especially PrimeTime at night. Nobody had ever seen a one-hour show quite like Primetime with the expansive amount of highlights of every single game in an hour. The NFL clearly elevated ESPN, and I think that was when the industry understood that we were for real.”
In addition to his NFL duties, Anderson also was responsible for all ESPN’s college-basketball productions (including the NCAA Tournament). In 1988, he was elevated to director of production, leading the Remote Production Department (including NFL, MLB, college sports, and NASCAR) and overseeing ESPN’s inaugural season of MLB games and studio shows.
“Steve was one of a handful who helped put ESPN’s flag in the ground in 1979,” says Berman of his colleague, “and his contributions at all levels were second to none. His energy, dedication, creativity, and kindness will long be remembered. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t like Steve Anderson.”
Rise of SportsCenter: More Than Just a Highlights Show
Anderson left perhaps his most indelible stamp on ESPN in his next role, teaming with Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer John A. Walsh to manage the day-to-day production operations for SportsCenter. Although SportsCenter had already served as ESPN’s flagship program for more than a decade by the time Walsh and Anderson came aboard in 1990, they envisioned making the program more than just a highlights show. In the ensuing years, SportsCenter would redefine what it was to be a sports-news show and open up its format to include breaking news and deeper long-form stories.
“Steve, for 35 years, was the heart and soul of ESPN,” says Walsh. “Every significant decision in my time with SportsCenter we made together. Quiet, respected, and the best voice in the room for difficult decisions, a wellspring of thoughtful ideas, and a collaborator nonpareil, he knew and understood how to make everything we did better, instinctively and intuitively. His curiosity was consistently on the mark.”
During his four years at the helm with Walsh, Anderson helped to elevate SportsCenter into the culture zeitgeist and brought aboard a veritable Murderers’ Row of anchors: Robin Roberts, Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Mike Tirico, Stuart Scott, Kenny Mayne, Rich Eisen, Linda Cohn, Suzy Kolber, Craig Kilborn, Chris Meyers, and Jimmy Roberts.
“Steve was instrumental to ESPN’s newsgathering success,” says Bornstein. “He has brains, ambition, and integrity, and he taught the art of television to my dear friend John Walsh. Together, this tandem turned ESPN into a first-class news organization.”
After four years co-running SportsCenter with Walsh, Anderson returned to the remote-production side, serving as SVP, remote production, under Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Howard Katz. During this period, Anderson was responsible for all remote/event productions, talent, and production personnel and oversaw production of the inaugural X Games.
“Steve Anderson is one of the most understated superstars this industry has ever known,” says Katz. “A tireless worker who combined exceptional intelligence with common sense and a warm, self-deprecating sense of humor, he’s also one of the most honest and ethical people I’ve ever worked with. Steve did it all and did it brilliantly. And, throughout his extraordinary career, Steve never once made it about himself, doing everything that was ever asked of him without fanfare or drama. Simply stated, a true class act.”
A Brief Bristol Hiatus: ABC Sports Comes Calling
In 1996, when ESPN and ABC came under the same corporate umbrella at Disney, Bornstein took over as president of ABC Sports (in addition to his role as ESPN chairman) and tapped Anderson to run ABC Sports production. In his role as SVP, production, Anderson managed all talent and production personnel for Monday Night Football, college football and basketball, figure skating, Triple Crown horse races, golf, boxing, bowling, and the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
“Across the landscape of broadcasting — talent, production, and technical — Steve Anderson set a standard of excellence at ESPN and ABC,” says ESPN Coordinating Director Chip Dean, who was lead director for ABC Sports’ college-football telecasts from 1997 to 2000 and directed MNF from 2006 to ’18. “He molded and guided our mission, which inspired others to amplify it — not just because of him but for him. Steve was a visionary who championed people first.”
Homecoming in Bristol: ‘World Wide Leader’ Lives Up to Its Name
Anderson would return to ESPN in 1999, taking over as EVP, production and technical operations, and overseeing all of ESPN’s productions, including studio shows, remote productions, and international productions. As ESPN built itself into one of the most powerful media companies in the industry, he played a vital role in the launch of ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, and ESPN Deportes, as well as the rapid growth of ESPN Radio.
“We were taking real risks with acquisitions, launching networks, launching [other platforms like] ESPN.com, ESPN radio, and ESPN International,” says Anderson. “All of those decisions seem obvious today, but I can tell you that they weren’t easy decisions at the time. At that point, we had a tremendous volume of events and shows on multiple networks. I was managing large numbers of people, and I felt a big part of my job was to put the right people in the right place to succeed. I believed that my focus was then to try to help make people better.”
After returning in 1999, Anderson would stay in Bristol for another 17 years, taking on senior-management roles: EVP, news, talent and content operations, (2007-14) and EVP, content operations and creative services, (2014-16). In addition to managing hundreds of employees across several departments, he helped lead the launch of ESPN’s Talent Office, Stats and Information Group, and Los Angeles Production Center (LAPC) and the SEC Network. He also worked to keep ESPN at the forefront of technological innovation with the launch of Digital Center 1 in 2004 and Digital Center 2 in 2014, which total more than 400,000 sq. ft. on the Bristol, CT, campus.
“Steve was a very important player in the growth and success of ESPN for 35 years,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer George Bodenheimer, former president and executive chairman, ESPN. “The sheer number of shows, franchises, and responsibilities he touched, including ABC Sports, stretched through the entire content spectrum of the company. Steve’s integrity, humility, character, and judgment were widely recognized and respected by all of his colleagues.”
In addition to managing the exponential expansion of ESPN’s operations, Anderson also helped cultivate the network’s next generation of talent and executives, serving as the executive champion of ESPN’s Women’s ERG (Employee Resource Group) and a key member of the company’s Diversity Council.
“Steve Anderson is one of the most talented production executives in the industry — smart, creative, and a tremendous leader,” says Jodi Markley, who took over as EVP, content operation and creative services, when Anderson retired in 2016. “He was the driving force behind key accomplishments and innovations at both ABC and ESPN.
Looking Back: A Career for the Ages
After his career at ESPN came to an end in 2016, Anderson has had more time to focus on his family: his wife of 41 years, Rosanne; his children, Matt and Chrissy; his daughter-in-law, Shima; and grandson Atlas.
“The day I got married, I was unemployed,” he says, “and, when I wanted to go to work for this little cable company in Connecticut called ESPN, Ro was 100% supportive. I was very fortunate to have an understanding and supportive family that has stuck with me through all the years in the business with all the travel and long hours. I’m very lucky.”
Anderson also serves on the board of JusticeAid, a non-profit organization that promotes justice through the arts and public engagement.
A winner of more than 40 Sports Emmy Awards, Anderson has seen ESPN grow from a fledgling longshot into an iconic sports-media company and one of the largest on the planet. And, while spending more than three decades at the same company is rare in the sports-media business, Anderson says he was constantly reinvigorated by the new challenges and opportunities created by ESPN’s relentless growth and the company’s willingness to take chances.
“I think we all learned very, very quickly that, if ESPN was going to make it, we were going to have to take risks and do things differently,” he says. “And I think that culture remained at ESPN through my entire time there. It’s very important to note that innovation and risk-taking were keys to our success. There was always a sense that, no matter what we accomplished today, the question was, what will we do tomorrow to make us better? I tried to instill that in the people who worked with me, and I hope I was able to because, in the end, that’s what mattered most to me.”