Power Hitter Profile: Susan Stone: From NBC to MLB, a Wearer of Many Hats
Despite a rather inauspicious start — NFL Players went on strike during her first week in the business in 1987 — Susan Stone has constructed one of the most distinguished and diverse careers of any individual working in sports television today. Currently SVP of operations at MLB Network, Stone was integral to the network’s launch in 2009 and has served as production and operations anchor at NBC, CBS, and NFL Network during her 20-plus years in the business.
Sports Fan From the Bronx
One of two girls born to a diehard New York sports fan, Stone and her sister regularly accompanied their father to the litany of sports events around New York City. Growing up in the Bronx, Stone was a sports fan from the beginning but not of the pinstriped team you might expect.
“I grew up in the Bronx but have always been a Mets fan,” she says. “My parents were Brooklyn Dodgers fans from way back. But my mother worked when I was growing up, and we had a housekeeper who watched after us, and she was a big Mets fan. When I was growing up, she would be listening to the Mets on the transistor radio every afternoon. And that’s how fans are created.”
A Passion for Theater
After graduating from Wesleyan University, Stone briefly worked in corporate sales at Tiffany & Co. before pursuing a career in theater production. While she loved theater, she also found it difficult to deal with the maddening up-and-down nature of the business.
“I was working on a show for two years that ended up opening and closing in the same night,” she recounts. “I just thought that I needed some more stability in my life, and I was trying to figure out what was next.”
That next step came in the form of her side job as a sous chef at a catering company. A friend of a friend was getting married and called Stone for some catering advice.
“She was working at NBC Sports. I told her, ‘I love sports. Your job must be so much fun,’” Stone says. “NBC Sports happened to have a three-month temporary job as a production secretary for the football season. I got the job, but, the week I started, the NFL went on strike. So it wasn’t a promising beginning, but it obviously all worked out fine in the end.”
NBC and Olympic Gold
The temporary job turned into a permanent one, and, just two years later, Stone was elevated to production manager on a variety of NBC Sports remotes. She eventually became supervising production manager during the glory days of the NBA on NBC.
She also worked on NBC’s Olympics coverage throughout the ’90s — first as the basketball production manager for the original Dream Team’s Gold Medal run in Barcelona in 1992 (still the favorite event of her career) and then as director of production management and venue operations at the Atlanta games in 1996.
“That was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had,” says Stone. “I love Olympic sports — dealing with all the federations and international broadcasters. Camera and commentary positions were totally different than anything I had done up to that point. There are times, when you are in the sports industry, that you get jaded and it’s hard to be thrilled, but I was awed by all that.”
CBS and a Mentor for the Ages
In 1998, CBS Sports got its NFL programming package back after a three-year absence. Stone signed on as director of production services, overseeing the network’s weekly NFL productions. It was at CBS that she first worked closely with the man she considers her mentor: longtime CBS exec Ken Aagaard.
“I absolutely consider Ken Aagaard my mentor and a truly fantastic man,” says Stone. “I always say that, if I am half the boss to my staff that he was to me, then I’ll have achieved something fantastic. Everything for him is about the production and making the production better. Everything is very integrated; there are no lines drawn between production and engineering and finance or anyone else. He’s totally fair and a true visionary. I just loved working for him.”
Motherhood and the NFL Network
After three years at CBS Sports, she had her son, Ethan, and decided to take some time off from sports production in favor of fulltime motherhood. Two years later, after daughter Sophie was born, Stone began itching to get back to work in the truck compound.
After some initial consulting work, she began working part-time on the NFL Network’s newly acquired football package in 2006, which evolved into a full-time job working in remote operations with Glenn Adamo, currently NFL VP of media operations and broadcasting.
“Starting a package like that from scratch was great,” she says. “We were given a lot of latitude to just come up with ideas concerning what we wanted to add technically, operationally, and production-wise. There were basically no preconceived notions, so we were given freedom to create.”
The Birth of a Network
In 2008, after 2½ years at NFL Network, Stone became employee No. 10 at the fledgling MLB Network. Working closely with President/CEO Tony Petitti, whom she had worked with at CBS years earlier, she oversaw the operational buildout of the network from the ground up. She arrived in July 2008, just six months before the scheduled go-live date of Jan. 1, 2009.
“It was a very aggressive startup, and we basically had to build everything from scratch,” says Stone. “We walked into MSNBC’s old headquarters, and it was like a ghost town. It looked like people had run outside for a fire drill and then just never came back. They had left all the SD equipment behind so we had to make it all HD.
“It was an unbelievable amount to accomplish in a six-month time period,” she continues. “I’m so proud of my whole team and the whole engineering team. The fact that we were just able to have pictures and sound and commercials on Jan. 1 was a huge triumph.”
Life Away From the Network
When not running the operations of a 24/7 cable network, Stone spends time with her husband of 12 years, Tom Gavin, two children, and golden retriever at their home in New Jersey.
She regularly takes Sophie horseback riding, and the sports-loving Ethan is known to be found playing Wiffle ball in Studio 42 at MLB Network headquarters. Stone has never lost her passion for theater either, frequenting shows in New York City (though she admits to “liking it a lot more as a spectator”).
A Method for Success
Since the network launch, Stone reports, MLB Network has ridden the same wave of success that many sports broadcasters have seen in recent years.
“I think the sports marketplace is exceptionally strong, in terms of both acquisition and delivery of content,” she says. “You’re seeing ratings increases across just about all of the sports broadcasters. Obviously, the sports product we’re delivering is important to people. That’s good for all of us, no matter what league or broadcaster you’re with.”
Sandra Baker, Stone’s one-time boss at NBC Sports, once told her, “If you want to succeed and advance, you need to be the best at your current job. It’s not enough to think that you will be great at the next job.”
Many years and many jobs later, Stone has done just that, taking her place among the elite of executives in the sports-production industry today.