Power Hitter Profile: Ken Aagaard — Network Executive, Part-Time Consultant, Full-Time Early Adopter
Over a long and successful career, Ken Aagaard has held numerous titles with multiple broadcasters, but his commitment to sports production has never wavered. Currently EVP of operations and production services for CBS Sports, he knew from an early age that he wanted to work in sports. Now in his 42nd year in the business, he has worked for every major network on nearly every sport, and he knows just how lucky he is to have his own dream job.
A Very Early Adopter
Aagaard grew up in Chicago and, at age 5, was already turning down the sound on his black-and-white television set so that he could do his own play-by-play for Cubs and White Sox games.
“I always wanted to be in sports broadcasting,” Aagaard says. “In high school and college, I did play-by-play as an announcer. I was really lucky that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I never wavered from that.”
After graduating from the University of Iowa in 1969, Aagaard worked as an operations director at WMAQ-TV Chicago, an NBC affiliate. He counts his years in the business from his first day at WMAQ, April 25, 1969.
During his time at WMAQ, he worked on multiple sports broadcasts because much of the commercial coordination for broadcasts like Monday Night Baseball and NFL football was done from the NBC network’s closest owned-and-operated station.
Hitting the Road
In the 1970s, NBC routinely reached out to its owned-and-operated stations to fill summer relief positions at its New York headquarters. In ’77, the network recognized Aagaard’s work at WMAQ and offered him a position in management during summer relief. In 1978, he became a permanent fixture at NBC, working in broadcast-operations control before being named VP of operations for NBC Sports in 1983.
“The thing that really made it lucky for me when I came to New York is, I started to travel and do a lot of remote sports,” Aagaard explains. “I got to work on Wimbledon, the French Open, boxing all over Europe and Africa, the World Series, and Super Bowls.”
To date, he has worked 18 Super Bowls, five World Series, a half dozen Wimbledons and French Opens, and three Olympics, including the 1988 Games in Seoul, where he was VP of operations for NBC Olympics. Still, his most memorable event is nothing as high-profile as a World Series or a Super Bowl but rather the 1994 World Equestrian Games in The Hague, Netherlands.
“I worked on the world championships of the World Equestrian Games, and I basically was everything from the executive producer on,” he explains. “It was something that was totally foreign to me. We had to make it up as we went along, and I had a blast doing it. I ended up having more fun producing that show than I ever would have thought.”
For that event, Aagaard worked side by side with NBC VP of Broadcasting Jack Weir, one of his mentors at the network. Weir had an affinity for equestrian events and brought Aagaard over to work the event with him.
“From an operations point of view, Jack was a complete innovator,” Aagaard says. “He never got the credit that he should have for all of the work that he did. As an operations guy, he was very important in my career because he taught me so much.”
Mentors Along the Way
In addition to guidance from Weir, Aagaard considers himself blessed to have had multiple mentors throughout his career. Also at NBC, producer/director Don Ohlmeyer was a key figure in teaching Aagaard what was important in television production.
“Don was exceedingly important in my career and really made me learn television the hard way,” Aagaard says. “Nothing was ever easy. If there was a problem, Don was always the one who said, ‘If it was easy, I would do it myself.’ Don made all of us do a lot more than we thought we could do ourselves. He was very instrumental in my career.”
ABC Sports Executive Producer Geoff Mason was another figure central to Aagaard’s success.
“He was the one that made me and [current CBS President of News and Sports] Sean McManus vice presidents on the same day at NBC in 1983,” Aagaard explains. “I’ve been working with Geoff for a lot of years, and he’s been very important to my growth in the industry.”
The Creative Side
After the 1988 Olympics, Aagaard branched out of the network ranks to form his own company, CBT (Creative Broadcast Techniques). Working with partners from NEP — George Wensel, in particular — Aagaard’s new venture worked on shows ranging from Tina Turner and Madonna concerts to Showtime boxing and Brazilian soccer matches in conjunction with Nike Sports Entertainment.
“We produced shows, did below the line, above the line, and consulting on facilities all through the 1990s,” Aagaard explains. “We did some great projects. We helped consult and build the first CNBC, and we did Universal Studios for MTV in Orlando. We did a lot of shows all over the world.”
CBT to CBS
Aagaard began consulting for CBS in 1997 and joined CBS Sports full time in 1998 as VP of operations and engineering, but he continues to work on CBT projects when he can — mostly nights, weekends, and early mornings. This year, those projects included the MLB Network and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
“CBS is still a full-time job,” he says. “I get to do a few other things here and there. How do you balance it? You balance it by always working.”
Aagaard’s current post at CBS is a balancing act of its own. As EVP of operations and production services, he is tasked with determining where new technology is going, how to utilize it, and how to pay as little as possible to do so.
“We don’t have the resources in R&D that we used to, but we’re still expected to keep up with the technology,” he points out. “All of that is a balancing act and sometimes is very difficult, but it’s the fun of the job. That’s the upside.”
The downside? It is always painful being an early adopter.
“Management, production, engineering, and certainly finance are always hesitant and suspicious of change. It is hard to do a perfect show and experiment with technology at the same time,” Aagaard continually reminds himself, citing HD, 3D, and 5.1 as examples of such experimentation.
“It’s a never-ending situation, and that, of course, is the good news,” he continues. “It keeps me interested. I’m into new projects, and I’m into new technology, and I’m always trying to figure out how I can do something better. That is what keeps me going.”
Time for Family
When he’s not wearing his CBS or CBT hat, Aagaard is a proud husband and father. He and his wife, Emerald, live with their 7-year-old daughter, Ally, in Bergen County, NJ, and Aagaard spends as much time with his family as he can.
“I really enjoy doing a lot of activities with Ally,” he says. “My family, without question, is most important to me.”
Aagaard has four sons from a previous marriage, all of whom have graduated from college and are now working in the entertainment business: eldest Michael as a sports cameraman, youngest Dane in sales with CBS Interactive, and the two middle sons, Christopher and Tommy, producing and editing in Hollywood.
“I’m proud of each and every one of them,” Aagaard says. “They’re all doing well, but it’s important to try to stay on top of what each of them is doing.”
If there is one word that best describes Aagaard’s career path, it is the one he uses most often: blessed.
“I’ve been really blessed in my career” is Aagaard’s refrain. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve been able to do just about everything across the board, work with most all of the broadcasters, and meet most everybody with all of the networks. People laugh because they say most everyone either worked with me, for me, or I worked for them, but I’ve been blessed and lucky to have all those opportunities.”
Having credits with ABC, CBS, Channel One, CNBC, ESPN, Fox, HBO, MLBN, MTV, NBC, and Showtime, Aagaard has truly run the table in his long career. Despite the long hours and constant changes associated with the technology side of sports production, he has only good things to say about every event with which he has been associated.
“It’s a unique community to live in,” he says. “It certainly is frenetic, but I’ve been really lucky to have been able to work with everybody in the business. I have very few — if any — bad things to say about anything that I’ve done, so I’ve really been blessed.”
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