April is a good month to be a sports fan in Chicago. The
are in the playoffs, the
are heading into the postseason vying for the
's best record, and the
have opened their seasons under new management, fostering pennant hopes for at least a few weeks.
It is also a pretty good month to be Jim Corno, president and CEO of
Chicago, the cable TV home to all four teams. The regional sports network will air some 80 live and rebroadcast games over 30 days, garnering the kinds of ratings and revenues that have turned a onetime fringe player into a major league operation.
"It's the dream month," said Corno, 65. "With all four teams playing, it's a magical time. It puts a lot of pressure and stress on our people, but this is what we live for."
Last April, Comcast SportsNet was the highest-rated cable network in Chicago during prime time, bolstered by 7 million households tuning in to 52 live pro games. The network had its five highest-rated games over a five-day stretch that month, with both the Bulls and Blackhawks in first-round playoff matchups.
The momentum looks strong again this year as the Blackhawks started the playoffs last week coming off their highest-rated regular season in network history. The Bulls are on a record pace as well, with regular season ratings up 40 percent ahead of the playoffs, which were pushed back to late April in the lockout-shortened season.
Started in 2004 as a groundbreaking partnership between the cable company and the team owners, Comcast SportsNet Chicago is the latest version of an idea -- creating a niche channel for local fans -- that was arguably way ahead of its time.
Corno, a TV lifer, has nurtured the regional sports network and its predecessors for nearly three decades.
Corno came to Chicago in 1984 to take the reins at SportsVision, a struggling, over-the-air pay channel with four employees, about 10,000 paid subscribers and an untold number of viewers who managed to unscramble the signal. Making the transition to the nascent Chicago cable market, Corno has guided the network through a variety of owners and incarnations -- from SportsVision to SportsChannel to
Net to Comcast SportsNet -- gradually building it into a 24/7 sports powerhouse with 125 full-time employees and 4.8 million subscribers.
Like most cable networks, the majority of CSN Chicago's revenue comes from rights fees paid by distributors including Comcast, RCN Cable,
and Dish Network. The larger the audience, the more the network can charge to carry its programming. Advertising provides a secondary revenue stream, with account executives selling commercial time in everything from live games to sports reports.
Evolving with the regional sports network business, Corno has built his career on hard work, ridiculously long hours and a knack for developing and maintaining relationships, a crucial skill in dealing with the notoriously large egos of media barons and sports owners. Among his duties, Corno has to fit together overlapping broadcast schedules with local
, national networks and multiple franchises. Juggling competing interests and the unrelenting pressures of live TV, he has managed to get even the Cubs and Sox on the same team, while making fans out of everyone from
to his devoutly loyal if sometimes overworked employees.
"Everybody likes him," said Reinsdorf, chairman of the White Sox and Bulls. "If you can't get along with Jim, then there's something wrong with you."
Up the ladder
Corno started his career in the mailroom of KPLR-TV as a 15-year-old high school student in his hometown of St. Louis. Eschewing college after a brief flirtation with higher learning, Corno proved a quick study in broadcasting. He learned film editing and program scheduling, working his way up to director of operations while still in his 20s. His early hands-on experiences shaped him throughout his career, both as a detail-oriented manager and as a repository of extensive broadcast knowledge.
"He knows everything that's going on," Reinsdorf said. "I've never asked him a question that he didn't know the answer to."
In 1974, he left St. Louis to become operations manager of WTOP-TV in Washington, then the flagship station of the Post-Newsweek broadcast group. Four years later, he went to WDIV-TV in Detroit, which the company acquired in a station swap, where he advanced to program manager.
Among Post-Newsweek's holdings at the time was an interest in SportsChannel, the nation's first regional sports network, which was launched in 1976 by New York-based
. In 1983, the network was in negotiations to buy Reinsdorf's SportsVision and looking for a general manager to run the fledgling venture. Attending a Post-Newsweek retreat in Puerto Rico, Corno was introduced to Jack Williams, who was president of SportsChannel at the time. The pair hit it off immediately.
"I had a good feeling about him from the minute we started talking," Williams said. "Jim is maybe the most genuine, down-to-earth person you'll ever meet, and he's also, as it's turned out over the years, one of the best executives you'll ever meet."
Reinsdorf, along with partner Eddie Einhorn, created SportsVision in 1982 in large part to extricate the recently purchased White Sox from a contract that previous owner
had negotiated with
-owned WGN-Ch. 9, which paid the team a paltry $6,000 a game.
"In '82, we got out of the WGN contract and took 55 games and put them on (WFLD) Ch. 32," Reinsdorf said. "The rest of the games we put on this subscription service. We called it SportsVision."
With Chicago woefully behind in the cable game, SportsVision employed a scrambled broadcast signal over WPWR-Ch. 60 (now Ch. 50), originally teaming the White Sox, Blackhawks, the now-defunct
and the Bulls, which Reinsdorf did not yet own. At its height, about 10,000 subscribers paid $19.95 a month and received a decoder box to watch the games. A flip of the switch tuned in ON-TV, a subscription movie service on WSNS-Ch. 44.
The transmission system proved flawed, and a cottage industry sprung up with black market descramblers providing a cheaper alternative for enterprising sports fans.
"We thought more people were stealing than were paying," Reinsdorf said.
Cablevision completed its purchase of SportsVision in 1984 and installed Corno as general manager. It began offering the pay network to its growing suburban cable base, moved the operation from Chicago to Oak Park and phased out over-the-air transmission.
In 1986, SportsVision converted from a pay service to basic cable, reaching 400,000 subscribers. Within a year, it surpassed 1 million subscribers, fueled mostly by cable's rapid growth within the market. In 1989, the name was changed to SportsChannel Chicago and by 1991, it became the first regional sports network to broadcast 24/7 programming.
Filling a lot of that programming was the first of six championships won by the
-led Bulls, a key factor in the network's growth.
"We were very fortunate to have Michael Jordan come along when he did," Corno said.
Still a lean operation in those years, full-time programming meant regular 75-hour work weeks for Corno -- not counting the hours he spent keeping an eye on the network from his Naperville home. When he wasn't at the ballpark, he was watching the TV broadcasts to get the fans' perspective during games, making sure everything from the camera shots to the commercials were picture perfect.
"When you're building something like we built here, it takes a lot of time and energy, and even when you're home, you're not home," he said. "I hate to tell you how many games my wife has watched, and she was not a sports fan."
In 1997, SportsChannel moved to its current studios at 350 N. Orleans St. in Chicago. The next year, Cablevision merged its SportsChannel network into Fox Sports Net, rebranding the Chicago outlet. In 1999, Corno scored a coup, getting the Cubs to move part of their broadcast schedule over to Fox Sports Net Chicago.
In 2004, the Cubs, Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls banded together and opted out of their Fox Sports Net agreement to take a majority ownership stake in a newly formed partnership called Comcast SportsNet Chicago. The revisited team ownership model -- essentially the original SportsVision concept -- proved successful, and has since been replicated at regional sports networks throughout the country.
Reinsdorf said the team owners all wanted Corno to stay on as general manager, but it had to pass muster with their partners at Comcast. It turned out to be an easy sell, because the head of Comcast SportsNet at the time was none other than Jack Williams, who had hired Corno 20 years earlier to run SportsVision.
Corno's ability to form lasting relationships helped him get hired for the same job twice. It has also been a key to his longevity in an industry known for short tenures.
"He's the guy in the middle," said Williams, who retired from Comcast SportsNet two years ago. "He has to satisfy the teams and the team owners, and he has to satisfy the corporate partners at Comcast. You have to be at times a politician, a magician and a few other things to pull that off, and he has done just that."
Maintaining those relationships means a lot of lunches, usually at a table under his own photo at
's on Kinzie Street. During a recent visit, a retinue of waiters, hostesses, busboys and managers eagerly attended to every aspect of his meal. His position no doubt generates respect, but his demeanor -- affable and down-to-earth -- engenders service.
His business lunches are rarely all business, however. Friends, family and sports are often the favored topics of conversation, according to Blackhawks President and CEO John McDonough, a frequent dining companion over the years.
When McDonough left the Cubs after 24 years in November 2007 to join the Blackhawks, he broke a regular lunch date with Corno. His jilted dining partner found out the reason during a live noontime press conference broadcast over his own network.
McDonough subsequently sought Corno's trusted advice, helping to break the ice on a deal to broadcast all 82 games on Comcast SportsNet and WGN-Ch. 9 during the 2008-09 season, the first full TV schedule in Blackhawks franchise history.
The following season, the Blackhawks won their first
in nearly 50 years.
"Coming over here to the Blackhawks, he was very helpful in my transition," McDonough said. "I asked him a lot of questions. In my first few months here, I didn't know who to trust, who to ask what. I went to Jim Corno."
A family man at heart, Corno has a paternal relationship with his network and his employees. Among those he has mentored is Greg Bowman, vice president of programming, who started as an intern from
during the mid-'80s and never left.
"The traffic manager quit right as my internship was ending," said Bowman, 50. "They offered me $13,000; I asked for $16,000 and ended up getting a job right out of college."
Starting with just a handful of colleagues, Bowman has grown with the network, learning the ropes from Corno. Bowman's early aspiration was to work on live game broadcasts from remote production trucks. Corno saw something bigger for Bowman.
"He kind of mentored me along the management route," Bowman said. "He's the reason I am where I am today."
Bowman has progressively assumed more responsibility for programming but keeps Corno fully in the loop. Surprising his boss, he says, is not a good idea. Disappointing him is even worse.
"He has not always been the easiest person to work with, but I say that with high regard, because he sets high expectations and he challenges you to grow and he wants to see you succeed," Bowman said.
With the network staffed entirely by employees he has hired and developed, Corno has begun to delegate more in recent years while staying tuned in to every facet of his business.
In October, Assistant General Manager Phil Bedella was elevated to vice president/general manager at Comcast SportsNet, taking charge of day-to-day operations. The move enables Corno to focus on the big picture, take in his grandkids' sporting events and ease back on the throttle just a little to something resembling a 40-hour workweek. But he has no plans to pass the torch anytime soon.
"We'll play it by ear, but right now I'm still invigorated and excited about things, and have no plans to go anywhere yet," Corno said.
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Jim Corno, president of Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
Education: Despite a successful career with just a high school degree, he preaches the value of a college education. "Both of my children have graduated from college, and I stress to my grandchildren all the time how important it is. Don't look at me as an example, because I was very fortunate to be able to do what I did."
Family: Lives in Naperville with his wife, Carolyn. They have two children, Jim Jr. and Christina, and five grandchildren, Jackson,
, Mitchell, Joseph and Scott. Tries to see all of his grandkids' sporting events to make up for missing his children's events during the early days of his career.
Awards: Will receive "Sportsman of the Year" award from the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.
A sports people person: "We should have a good time with what we're doing, and if you like people and you want to deal with people, it makes it a lot easier to come to work every day."
On relationship management: "There are times when you're not going to get along with people, and there are times when you're going to have situations with employees or people where it's not pleasant. But if you've got a good relationship, you get through that pretty quickly and you move on with it."
To tweet, perchance to stream: "When it comes to streaming or any of the other new technologies that we'll be seeing in the future, I know we'll be a part of it. We'll be there, if not ahead of everybody else, certainly with everybody else."