Disney is handing the reins of ESPN to the veteran programmer who has broadened the cabler’s focus into international sports and greatly enhanced its programming across all media platforms.
John Skipper, exec veep of content, will succeed George Bodenheimer as prexy of the cable sports behemoth as of Jan. 1. Bodenheimer will become exec chairman and remain on its board of directors but hand day-to-day responsibilities to Skipper, who will also become co-chair of Disney’s Media Networks division.
Although ESPN has branched out in recent years to numerous ancillary businesses, it remains at its core a content company, which made Skipper the logical candidate to follow Bodenheimer as topper.
Bodenheimer has been with ESPN for 31 years, and served as prexy for the past 13. The baton toss from Bodenheimer to Skipper is in keeping with Disney’s emphasis on orderly succession planning. The Mouse last month unveiled its long-term plan for Bob Iger’s transition out of the CEO slot in 2015.
“George has said repeatedly that ESPN’s success has been led by its collaborative corporate culture and a deep bench of executive talent,” said Iger, who got his start at ABC in the 1970s in its sports wing. “While that remains true, it obviously and intentionally downplays his leadership and many significant contributions.”
After much discussion with Iger about his future, the 53-year-old Bodenheimer felt the time was right to hand the reins to Skipper, who has spearheaded programming during a time of rapid growth and change at ESPN. The cabler reupped its “Monday Night Football” package through 2021 for $15.2 billion in September.
Other deals ESPN has recently closed include an exclusive pact with the Wimbledon tennis tournament, and the Pac-12, contracting with the conference to air its college football and basketball games in a shared deal with Fox Sports.
ESPN logged another milestone this year as the first cabler to carry college football’s championship game, which brought a record-breaking aud of 27.3 million in January.
Skipper joined ESPN in 1997 as senior veep and g.m. of its magazine unit. He was upped to head of programming in 2005.
His ascent comes as no surprise to ESPN insiders, according to Mark Shapiro, who preceded Skipper as head of programming and is now a partner and CEO at Dick Clark Prods.
“He’s extremely popular,” said Shapiro. “As a person, in terms of the way he treats people and listens, his curiosity and intellectual capacity, he’s very much in line with his predecessor. It’s about a seamless transition as you would find.”
Literally days after Skipper — a huge proponent of international sports coverage, especially soccer — took the job as head of content six years ago, he flew to Switzerland where he acquired the rights to the men’s and women’s World Cup, which has since been a boon for the net, though it lost the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cup rights to Fox.
Said Shapiro: “To construct a strategy so highly focused on soccer and then lose the World Cup, that was disappointing. It will serve as a wake-up call to continue spending generously to obtain and keep blue-chip properties.”
Bodenheimer served 13 years as president of ESPN and, according to insiders, wanted to step away and spend more time with his family as the job was taking a toll. Bodenheimer’s history at ESPN was built on the sales and affiliate side of the business before becoming prexy, yet he was always a huge proponent of acquiring content to build the net’s portfolio.
Under his regime ESPN has grown into a conglom that encompasses eight TV domestic networks, 48 global channels, 18 websites and 7,000 employees, many based at the company’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters.
“We are in great shape on many fronts,” Bodenheimer said. “The people of ESPN have made us the great company we are today. I am very proud of all that we have accomplished together, and excited about our future.”
ESPN will have to continue to make investments in sports programming to stay ahead of hard-charging competition. Not only has Turner, with its NBA basketball package, and Fox made a major sports push, but with a cash infusion from Comcast, NBCUniversal has vowed to invest megabucks in turning its Versus cabler (soon to be renamed NBC Sports Network) into another formidable rival.
“We continue to buy rights, start new businesses and push into new platforms because we believe sports is a driver for all of that,” Skipper told Variety in July. “We see our competition in a number of places. I mean there is competition for eyeballs on television, for buying rights, on the Internet from social media companies and on videogames. We still think the way to break through all that competition is to own live rights and then build studio content around those live rights.”
ESPN also needs to have a plethora of sports programming in order to continue to demand the approximately $4.50 per subscriber fee it currently receives from its affiliates. That’s more than any other cable network, and combined with a hefty ad revenue, it makes ESPN a huge profit center for Disney.