Jim Corno, president of Comcast SportsNet Chicago
Affable broadcast executive has nurtured regional sports network for almost 30 years
Jim Corno, president of Comcast SportsNet Chicago, stands in the studio at 350 N. Orleans St. (Chris Walker / June 14, 2012)
It is also a pretty good month to be Jim Corno, president and CEO of Comcast SportsNet 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 Fox Sports 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, DirecTV 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 television stations, 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 Jerry Reinsdorf 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 Cablevision. 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 Bill Veeck had negotiated with Tribune Co.-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."