ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro on Cord-Cutting, New Takes on Sports Coverage and the NFL

James Jimmy Pitaro ESPN President
Courtesy of Disney

Jimmy Pitaro just walked into a dream job for sports fans, but the challenges he faces may keep him up at night.

Pitaro was recently named ESPN’s eighth president, and will immediately grapple with any number of tricky issues. He must keep an increasingly digital audience interested in the Disney-controlled outlet’s popular sportscasts. He needs to manage billion-dollar rights agreements. And he must attempt to maintain a rich line of revenue from pay TV despite subscriber erosion.

Below, in his first in-depth interview since assuming his latest role, Pitaro talks about ESPN’s relationship with the National Football League. He offers a brief tour of ESPN+, the forthcoming subscription-based OTT service. And while he acknowledges new competitors, he notes that ESPN still carries a lot of weight in the sports-business arena.

What do you think ESPN+ and the revised ESPN app will do for the overall business? Is it a replacement for cord-cutting?
First of all, the new app will be ESPN’s best, most modern digital product experience. It will be, simply, what our fans expect from ESPN in this new world: a clean, easy-to-navigate personalized experience where we get out of the way of the content and really let the content shine, and we will serve the right content to the right user at the right time. It really is the next big step for us in terms of how we serve the sports fans.

So let me break it down for you a little bit. It’s essentially three products in one: news, highlights and stats; an authenticated layer for MVPD subscribers; and then the ESPN+ experience. We are going to have over 10,000 new sporting events not offered on traditional linear television, in addition to some of our most high-quality original programming — our acclaimed “30 for 30” series will be available on demand exclusively with the ESPN+ experience.

On the video side, you are going to see a completely reimagined experience. … We have a real opportunity with the ESPN app and ESPN+ to expand our audience and the reach of ESPN. Our primary focus is on making ESPN more relevant to more people across the world. We are focused on informing, entertaining and surprising our fans, and we are confident that our new app is going to do that.

Live sports are at the heart of ESPN, but sports-TV rights are phenomenally expensive and likely to get more so as digital players move onto the field. How will ESPN fare against some of these new competitors, and what could that mean for the company’s cost structure?
We’ve always faced competition, and we have always made smart, disciplined bets on rights that return the most value for ESPN. Nothing has changed there. You will continue to see us operate in the same way going forward.

I do believe the leagues, conferences and other rights holders see the value of appearing with ESPN. When you look at our offerings across cable, broadcast and digital, and when you consider the incredible team we have producing events and creating content, and when you look at the amazing reach we have across platforms and the power of our brands, it’s really a very attractive package for our partners, and I like our hand going forward.

“Monday Night Football” is one of ESPN’s best-known properties. But the NFL has made clear its interest in spreading rights around, and ratings have declined. Do you need to advocate for better games? Do you think ESPN needs to engage the NFL more seriously about “MNF”?
“Monday Night Football” is a priority for ESPN and our business, and our relationship with the NFL is very important to us. The partnership has been successful for both sides over the years. I personally have good relations with the league, and I’ve been in touch with several executives already, and I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion, which will of course include “Monday Night Football.” The focus of our conversation is going to be around how we can grow together. We are very interested in growing the sport of football, and we want to do that in partnership with the NFL.

ESPN recently encountered some issues with the 6 p.m. broadcast of “SportsCenter.” What do you think of the direction of the franchise?
We are very pleased with the success of “SportsCenter.” We have made some changes, as you know, and that’s OK. … [We will] make changes based on what we think is best for the business going forward, and that will continue as part of “SportsCenter.” And that will be relevant to every part of our business.

A series of social-media outbursts by ESPN personalities in recent years has proven distracting. There’s a new social-media policy in place, but how do you feel about your anchors weighing in on the many parts of daily life upon which sports touches, like race, politics and culture?
We are not a political organization. We are a sports-media company. And our focus is on serving the sports fans. There will always be intersections between sports and politics. When that news happens, we are going to cover it.

I will tell you, regarding our employees specifically, we provided them with guidelines. There is general understanding and alignment in terms of what our best path forward is within the company. … I’m a big believer in the value of social media, and we need to engage with our fans through social media in a thoughtful way, and we are doing that. We have taken and will continue to take a very open approach, and what I mean by that is we are going to make sure we are present everywhere our fans are.

Your predecessor John Skipper was interested in testing new properties like Grantland, FiveThirtyEight, and “30 for 30” that have high-quality sports journalism at their core. Do you have any interest in similar products, even if the costs of sports rights continue to increase?
Quality journalism and storytelling are vital to our brand and will continue to be a core business proposition for us going forward. Our focus is on covering sports in an exemplary fashion, and that’s not going to change. We all see the importance of honest, objective, well-reported journalism in sports, and this is what our fans expect from us.

I did a town hall [March 14], and I commented to our employees how incredibly interested we are in reaching new audiences. It will be one of our core priorities going forward, so to the degree we can embark on smart new products that build our audiences and our brands, we are going to pursue that. Like I said before, we are continuing to innovate and try new things.