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Meet 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient Steve Bornstein ’74

According to family lore, it was the Mississippi River that made Steve Bornstein a Badger.

Steve Bornstein ’74

UW Major: Communication Arts
President of North America at Genius Sports

According to family lore, it was the Mississippi River that made Steve Bornstein a Badger. Bornstein, who grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, had hoped to move across the country to attend the University of California, Berkeley, for college. However, his dad insisted on personally driving his son to whatever school he chose — and he wouldn’t go any farther than the Mississippi River. UW–Madison was as far west as Bornstein could get.

Once there, he moved into a Southeast dorm overlooking a large construction pit that gradually became the new Vilas Communications Hall. As the building went up, it piqued Bornstein’s interest in television production. He took a few communications classes and was hooked enough to switch his major away from math and physics.

Bornstein got a job as a cameraman at a local television station and balanced school with work for the rest of his time as an undergraduate. He held positions at both public and commercial TV stations in Madison, ultimately ending up as a director. After graduating, he worked at several stations around Wisconsin before moving to Columbus, Ohio, where he climbed his way up to executive producer at WOSU-TV.

On the side, he was hired to help produce the first-ever pay-per-view Ohio State football games, which in 1980 earned him an invitation to join a brand-new dedicated sports channel called ESPN. Bornstein’s first title at the four-month-old channel was manager of program coordination, and he pioneered ESPN’s unique mix of event broadcasting, sports news, and special-interest programming. He rose quickly, becoming ESPN president and CEO in 1990 at age 38.

He spent the next 12 years growing ESPN into a multichannel Goliath of sports content. Bornstein then spent a few years as president of ABC Sports, which he helped to establish as the preeminent network for college football, and spearheaded the creation of the College Football Championship Series. In 2003, he was tapped by the National Football League to launch the NFL Network, which became the most widely distributed sports network in the history of the industry. Bornstein shepherded large acquisitions, mergers, and innovations that have reshaped how, when, and where the American public watches football.

In 2015, video-game company Activision Blizzard recruited Bornstein to become the head of a new e-sports division. The experience opened his eyes to the wide world of gaming and the potential for media companies to “gamify” live sporting events into more personalized and engaging experiences for audiences. In 2021, Bornstein joined data firm Genius Sports as its first president of North America. He currently oversees the company’s core data business, streaming endeavors, marketing, partnerships, and forays into artificial intelligence.

“Steve has distinguished himself professionally by completely revolutionizing the world of sports and sports entertainment,” says retired UW head football coach and athletics director Barry Alvarez. “Steve is a giant in his field — no matter which field he is on at any particular time.”

Bornstein is also a cofounder of the V Foundation, which raises funds for cancer research in memory of college basketball coach Jim Valvano. Since 1993, the foundation has provided more than $310 million in research grants nationwide.

As for that original dream of moving to California? Bornstein eventually got there — to Santa Monica, where he lives with his family.

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