Power Hitter Profile: Joe Cohen: Sports Network Pioneer, Venue Guru, Sports Executive

Joseph M. Cohen has no shortage of firsts — and seconds and thirds — in the TV business. He negotiated the first-ever cable rights contracts with the NBA, NHL, and MLB; started two television networks (MSG and USA); and bought HTN, the company he currently owns, three times. Now chairman and CEO of HTN, he is a sports-television pioneer from coast to coast, having lent his expertise to professional-sports franchises, cable, radio, arena operations, and stadium development from New York to Los Angeles, and every arena in between.

Following the Fun
A native of Queens, NY, Cohen earned a BS in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. At Penn’s Wharton School of Business, he was tasked with writing a thesis, and a professor suggested focusing on something that was fun.

“I did it on the Flyers and Sixers and how they competed for the leisure-time dollar of the Philadelphia sports fan,” Cohen says. “Then, when it came time to go to work, I followed the same philosophy and decided not to go into the family business. I had an offer to work for the Dodgers and an offer to work for Madison Square Garden, took the MSG job in 1969, and here I am now — with no regrets and a career of great experiences.”

As assistant to the VP of operations at MSG, he began working during his final semester of graduate school, supervising union workers and security, negotiating labor contracts, and overseeing the electricians and box office. After several promotions, in 1975, Cohen was named VP of MSG Cable and VP of development for the Garden.

Two Networks, Two Launches
“In 1979, we put together MSG Cable, MSG Broadcast, MSG Advertising, and HTN [then called Hughes Television Network], which was then a production company that was part of Paramount Pictures, and formed Madison Square Garden Network,” he explains.

As president of MSG Network, Cohen was responsible for advertising, sales, production, and program development, as well as the broadcast and cable operations for all Garden events. In the midst of running the MSG cable network, he worked with Bob Rosencrans to co-found the USA Network, which had the out-of-market rights to 85 Knicks and Rangers Games, distributed by satellite.

Although he founded the two networks within a few years of one another, creating MSG was very different from creating USA.

“MSG was local rights; USA was out-of-market rights,” Cohen says. “Once we formed USA, shortly thereafter, the leagues changed the rules so the home teams didn’t own the game; the leagues took back the copyright, so that they could make cable deals. USA bid against ESPN, and we got the original cable deal in the very early ’80s for the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball.”

HTN, the Sequel
After founding USA, Cohen continued to run MSG Network while also overseeing MSG’s 50% interest in USA Network and doing development projects for MSG Corp. In 1985, he left to form an investment group that — in a bit of déjà vu for Cohen — purchased Hughes Television Network from the Garden.

“We scrambled the backhaul signals that created the product that the leagues now sell as MLB Extra Innings, NHL Center Ice, and NBA Game Time packages,” he says. “Scrambling the signals created that product that’s now become big business for the leagues.”

He served as president and CEO of HTN for a year before purchasing Z Channel in Los Angeles in 1987.

“I bought control of the Los Angeles movie network, and I put the Dodgers, Angels, and Clippers on Z Channel, along with the movies,” Cohen says. “In 1989, we sold HTN to IDB, which no longer exists, and sold Z Channel to Rainbow, which was going to turn it into Sports Channel Los Angeles.”

MSG, Part 2
In 1989, Cohen began working as a consultant for Ed Snider’s Spectacor and, in 1991, was named president of Spectacor West and CEO of Spectacor Films.

“In 1993, I bought the L.A. Kings, and, in 1995, I sold the L.A. Kings,” he smiles. “I came back to MSG in 1995 and was head of MSG Network.”

As EVP, Cohen was responsible for MSGN, Fox SportsNet New York, and MSG Radio. In 1998, he supervised the implementation of MSGN’s HDTV capabilities, making MSG the first regional sports network to feature live-event telecasts in HD.

“We were doing 200 events in HD at that time,” he says. “I’m really proud of being a pioneer of HD.”

HTN, Part 3
In 2003, Cohen acquired HTN for the third time, this time as sole proprietor. In 2005, Cohen served as principal architect of Sportstime Ohio, the Cleveland Indians’ regional sports network, but, today, he runs HTN.

“We call it HTN because Globecast, who I bought it from in 2003, did not protect the name Hughes Television Network,” he explains. “When I bought it, we couldn’t clear the name so we call it HTN, but we’re the direct successor of Hughes Television Network, the last non–major-network rightsholder to NFL games.”

HTN is, in fact, the longest-tenured sports-television and radio-transmission provider in North America. It has transmitted every game ever produced for Madison Square Garden, as well as every game for NESN, YES, MASN, STO, and Altitude Sports & Entertainment. HTN currently transmits MLB Network’s Ballpark Cam from all 30 MLB stadiums, as well as all NBA and MLB games broadcast on ESPN and all college basketball games that ESPN airs from NBA arenas. HTN’s clients also include the NBA and NHL, World Wrestling Entertainment, KCAL, SNY, and Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.

“I’m really proud of how, since 2003, we’ve built HTN back from something that had grown very small to something that is much more important now,” Cohen says. Still, with so many customers on that list, staying current is not always easy.

“Every customer has his own particular nuances and requirements,” he explains. “I’m concerned with pleasing each customer with their varying needs and staying current and competitive in the industry. Technology is changing fast, and demands of the customers are great.”

A 3,000-Mile Commute
When Cohen is not at work, his wife and four daughters, travel pursuits, and athletic endeavors keep him plenty busy. An avid skier, he is in the gym four to five times a week and commutes from California to New York, where HTN is headquartered.

“I love living in California and working in New York,” he says. “Every morning, when I leave my house, I drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, and it’s spectacular. I love New York, but my view beats the Long Island Expressway.”

A Life-Long Attachment
Over the course of his career, Cohen has worked in sports television from all angles, serving broadcasters, teams, leagues, and even stadiums and arenas. From 1976 to 1985, he served on television committees for both the NHL and NBA, representing the Rangers and Knicks. He helped to negotiate the NHL’s contract with ESPN and is currently an advisor to the Los Angeles mayor’s commission studying the construction of a new football stadium in Los Angeles. Of all of his accomplishments, the pride of his career, he says, is the two networks he can call his own.

“When you found something, that’s yours forever,” he says. “You’re right there at the beginning, and you have that attachment to it.”

The same could be said of Joe Cohen and sports. Having begun his career in sports television more than 40 years — and three purchases of HTN — ago, he has been attached to the industry, in one way or another, for five decades, leaving an indelible mark on it.

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