ESPN'S TROJAN WORKHORSE

Area native Gross rose through ranks, heads studio programming

PETE DOUGHERTY Staff Writer
Section: Sports,  Page: C1

Date: Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bristol, Conn.


Four wide-screen plasma TVs adorn the walls of Mark Gross' corner office, which provides a view of ESPN's "campus" from a building that has been open barely a month. Yes, it is called a campus, worthy of any grounds that contains seven structures, not counting the dozens of satellite dishes.


Of course, each monitor is tuned to a network channel - ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPNews - and provides a valuable tool for Gross in his position as head of studio programming. It's a pretty impressive surrounding for the boy from Troy.


Gross, 41, is a Troy High School ('84) and Ithaca College ('88) graduate who worked his way up through the ESPN ranks to one of the highest positions in a company of 5,000 employees.


"We try to make a nice place to work and have a career," said ESPN president George Bodenheimer, whose career in Bristol began in the mailroom. "We have a lot of people who have been here a long time, including myself, and we try to promote that."


Gross fits the company profile perfectly.


He arrived in August 1988, advancing to associate producer, highlights supervisor and producer and coordinating producer. He left Bristol in 1997 and moved to California to work for Disney, which has an 80 percent stake of ESPN. (The Hearst Corp., which also owns the Times Union, has the other 20 percent.)


"I learned more about ESPN when I was working in Burbank than I did when I was working here," Gross said. "I was working with all areas of the company. When I was here, I was only with studio production. Out there, I was dealing with people from affiliate and sales and production and studio production and remote production. It was really beneficial for me."


Though he never left the Disney family, he wanted to get back into TV. So ESPN welcomed him back in the summer of 2002 as coordinating producer for "College GameDay." He was promoted to senior coordinating producer, in charge of 6 p.m. and weekend "SportsCenters," then to senior vice president for "SportsCenter" as a whole.


In his current role, officially termed "senior vice president and managing editor, studio production," Gross is entrusted with the operation of all ESPN studio programming, from "SportsCenter" to "NFL Countdown" to "College GameDay" to "NASCAR Tonight" to ESPNews.


"I oversee studio production, whether it's content, personnel decisions, budgets, administrative things," he said. "Soup to nuts, there's a lot going on."


Gross has succeeded, according to his former boss, because he grasps ESPN's philosophy.


"We are a very decisive and task-oriented culture sometimes," explained Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president in charge of studio and remote production. "Sometimes you've got to get off the bullet train for a second and sit with people and be concerned with guiding your leaders and pushing decision-making down.


"He picked up on that early in his career. He trusts people, he delegates well, he has a genuine concern for people's growth, and he understands the business connection to that."


Gross' defining moment, the one that drew the attention of ESPN executives, likely came during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Gross was part of a network crew at 1:21 a.m. on an early Saturday in Atlanta's Centennial Park when a bomb went off.


"Chris Myers was taping our segments for the 2 a.m. `SportsCenter,' and, over a boxing score panel, the bomb went off," Gross said. "The (production) truck shook. It was unclear what had happened, but shortly there after Myers said, `Something is going on here.'


"Our spot was right on top of the Chamber of Commerce building, and we were adjacent to the Centennial Olympic Park. There was hardly anybody else who was on TV at that time. I don't know if anybody was because we were just taping stuff. We just stayed on and stayed on all night. We stayed on until about 6 o'clock in the morning and regrouped and were back on at 7 o'clock in the morning."


He went 48 hours without sleep, but that's typical - well, maybe not 48 hours, but long hours - of a good journalist who recognizes an important story.


Williamson points to Gross' "editorial sensibilities" in his approach to the job.


"He does a lot of research on our audience," Williamson said. "He understands what our audience is, and he's been able to stay ahead of the curve, giving viewers what they want, maybe even a little before they know it. With that comes taking some chances, whether it's with the `SportsCenter' brand or a new show like `College Football Live.' He's aggressive. When you put those things together, we're fortunate to have an executive of that caliber."


Gross, who married a woman from Bristol, said he has been fortunate to forge relationships with some of the network's top talent, which includes many former athletes and coaches. He is particularly close to the college football crew and often mentions Lee Corso, the former Indiana University football coach who arguably is ESPN's best known analyst of that sport.


"My thing is," Gross explained, "I always look at things half-full. Don't look at them half-empty. Lee Corso always said, `Life is good.' You learn a lot by hanging out with Corso and talking to (Lou) Holtz. All these guys have different experiences that you can learn from - upbeat, a lot going on, very busy, competitive environment. I would much rather be where we are than the people chasing us. I don't think I'd want to be trying to chase up."








Pete Dougherty can be reached at 454-5416 or by e-mail at pdougherty@timesunion.com. Visit his blog at http://blogs.timesunion.com/