New Canaan: Next Station to Heaven

From the train to the stands of a high school football game, the Connecticut suburb of New Canaan is packed with top sports business industry leaders.

By David Gardner
Illustrations by Ariana Torrey

For Cathy Yancy, it felt like the first day of school. After she packed her bag and stepped off the front porch of her new home at the edge of the village of New Canaan, Conn., she strolled down the brick sidewalks toward the Metro-North station. When she boarded the train that day in the spring of 2010, she nervously considered where to sit. Then she saw an old friend waving his arm, flagging her down. As she approached, he smiled and slapped the seat next to him. It was NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer.

“Ken told me: ‘There are seat assignments,’” said Yancy, who is vice president of broadcasting at the NFL. “He gave me the 101. He told me where I should sit — and where I shouldn’t. I didn’t know how serious it was until I got off the train that morning and someone said to me, ‘I can’t believe you sat on Ken’s bench!’”

New Canaan, Conn.

Population: 20,622
Distance to Manhattan: approx. 50 miles
Median household income: $190,227
Median home value: $1.485 million
% with bachelor’s degree (25 and older): 79.5%

Sources: census.gov, zillow.com

In fact, sports executives sharing a train to Manhattan has become a common occurrence in New Canaan. The tiny town tucked in Connecticut’s elbow boasts a surprising number of heavy hitters in sports media among its 20,622 residents. Aside from Yancy, there’s NBC Sports Group Chairman Pete Bevacqua; former ESPN president George Bodenheimer; SNY Senior Vice President Curt Gowdy Jr.; CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus; Sports Media Advisors CEO Doug Perlman; Bruin Capital CEO George Pyne; popular sports radio host Chris “Mad Dog” Russo and many, many more. Schanzer has since retired and moved away, as did former WTA CEO Anne Worcester.

Yancy first moved to Connecticut in 1992 to join ESPN, and she settled in Southbury so that she could be near the network’s main Bristol campus. But when she was hired away by the NFL in 2002, her commute stretched to 2.5 hours each way. At first she didn’t want to disrupt her children’s lives, but she eventually discovered that they too were eager to move. In 2009, they set off on a tour of Fairfield County, Conn. For folks who make their careers in New York, the surrounding suburbs — from Nassau County on Long Island to northern New Jersey to Westchester County just north of the city — are an obvious attraction, offering more space, an easy commute and lower property taxes. Connecticut is particularly attractive for those reasons, and Darien, Rowayton, Westport and other towns in the so-called “Gold Coast” also have their share of sports industry heavyweights.

“We have a lot of happy memories. My kids all played soccer, and my two sons played football at the high school. My daughter even sang the national anthem before the football games for a few years. One of the reasons people love New Canaan so much is because the train originates there. That means that you can almost always get a seat.”

George Bodenheimer, former president, ESPN

 

The New Canaan train hub, which can get residents to Grand Central Station in just over an hour, has been affectionately nicknamed “the next station to heaven,” and it was the first stop on the Yancy family tour. As they drove around town that weekend, her son spotted some football players carrying their pads home from practice. And her daughters got a kick out of the menu items named after sports icons at Chef Luis Restaurant (if you’re ever in town, consider the Cashman’s Buccatini, for longtime Yankees general manager Brian Cashman). They were convinced. This was home.

“I’ve often thought: What’s the sports connection that brings everyone here?” said Yancy. “I think it’s simple. We all wanted the same thing: A great place to raise a family. This a wonderful community with amazing schools and sports programs. Once you live here, it just seems so obvious that it’s the best place to be.”

“The first winter there, I went to Home Depot to pick up a Christmas tree. I was standing in line, and I saw George Bodenheimer right behind me. He had a big old tree in his hands as well. I think so highly of him, and it was so funny to see him in this totally different setting. We were still new in town, so he gave me some restaurant recommendations. Looking back, it sounds sort of like describing a dream.”

Pete Bevacqua, chairman, NBC Sports Group

 

There doesn’t seem to be one godfather of this great migration to New Canaan, but Bodenheimer, the former ESPN president, is among the longest tenured in town. His wife grew up in New Canaan — she was in the same high school class as Harlan Stone, who later became a sports marketing pioneer and now lives in nearby Darien — and he was raised in nearby Greenwich. They settled into town in 1991. It didn’t occur to him how prominent a place in the sports media landscape his home had become until he was invited to speak at a career night at New Canaan High School in the early 2000s.

On stage at the auditorium that night, a student interviewed him, Schanzer and McManus as part of a panel discussion on sports media. “It was pretty impressive,” Bodenheimer said. “There were the heads of CBS, NBC and ABC-slash-ESPN all in one town. It was the trifecta. How many other places could put together something like that?”

“I first heard about New Canaan from my roommate in college. He raved about his hometown. And I knew George Bodenheimer and Sean McManus were there, and we all were able to see our kids go to school at the same time. George’s son played football with my son, and Sean’s son and my son were friendly. It’s really nice to be able to get to know each other’s families.”

George Pyne, CEO, Bruin Capital

 

The presence of so many players in the sports media space is one of the reasons why Perlman decided to put the headquarters of Sports Media Advisors right by the train station. When he first moved to New Canaan, he was working at the NHL. He remembers running into Bodenheimer and McManus at Starbucks his very first weekend. He’d been so busy unpacking boxes that he hadn’t even bothered to shave. He came home and joked with his wife he’d have to behave himself and look his best anytime he went into town.

“Outside of New York, New Canaan might be the sports media capital of the world,” Perlman said. “There’s so many executives in town. ESPN and NBC and the WWE are nearby. It’s proven to be a great place to have the business. And more than that, it’s proven to be a great place to make great friends. Fortunately, our industry attracts a lot of lovely people.”

It can be a good place to network and launch a career, too. After college, Stone returned to his hometown and was working for himself at what he called Stone Sports when he started promoting the Merrill Lynch Tennis Classic, a legends event, in 1983 that featured major names including Rod Laver. Two years later, Jay FitzGerald, the president of Golf Digest and Tennis Magazine, came to the event and was so impressed he asked Stone to become the president of GD/T Sports. “All because I happened to promote it in New Canaan,” said Stone. “I got lucky the right guy was in the stands that night.”

Citizens of the world

Not every prominent sports executive lives in New Canaan, of course. But as sports marketing maestro Harlan Stone, who lives in Darien but grew up in New Canaan said recently of his former address, “It feels like an epicenter, a locus for the industry.” Here’s just some of the sports business titans who do or until recently did call it home:

Pete Bevacqua: Chairman, NBC Sports Group
George Bodenheimer: Former president, ESPN
Dave Checketts: Former president/CEO, Madison Square Garden
Will Funk: Executive vice president, Turner Sports
Sean McManus: Chairman, CBS Sports
Doug Perlman: Founder/CEO, Sports Media Advisors
George Pyne: Founder/CEO, Bruin Capital
Tim Slavin: Managing director and chief legal officer, OneTeam Partners
Jon Stainer: Managing director, Nielsen Sports
Anne Worcester: Former CEO, WTA
Cathy Yancy: Vice president/broadcasting,National Football League

Almost three decades later, it’s common for executives to bump into each other around town, especially on the sidelines of youth sporting events, where they’re in attendance to cheer on — or coach — their children. Until the pandemic struck, the most popular show in town was Friday night football games at New Canaan High School, where George Pyne’s son Drew served as the star quarterback.

When Drew, now a sophomore backup QB at Notre Dame, would see the Bevacquas around town, he’d always check in on the budding football careers of Pete’s two preteen boys, Arthur and Jake. “It’s just that kind of place,” Pete said. “Everyone is so kind. And the fact that the two schools are about an 8-iron from our house, that doesn’t hurt either.”

The close quarters are only occasionally uncomfortable. The coronavirus pandemic has cut off the morning train commute for most residents, but Perlman remembers always being very conscious of who was nearby when he answered sensitive phone calls. “Occasionally, you have to walk between the train cars,” he said, “so you don’t get caught revealing any secrets.”

These days, the main New Canaan secret that concerns Cathy Yancy is how to get an entrée named after her family at Chef Luis. Just last week, they were having dinner there when Luis stopped by the table to talk about football. He walked away before Yancy had a chance to bring up the menu.

“I think the secret is just to eat there a lot, which is no problem,” she said. “We live here and have no plans to leave.” 

David Gardner has written for Bleacher Report, The New York Times, The Ringer, Sports Illustrated and Texas Monthly.

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