Walt Disney named James Pitaro, who had been leading its consumer-products and digital divisions, to oversee ESPN, placing an executive with years of experience in digital media atop one of its most lucrative and best-known assets. He will also serve as co-chair of the company’s TV operations.
Pitaro will immediately find himself navigating a wide array of challenges aimed at keeping the sports-media juggernaut known as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” in that exact position. While ESPN remains a top performer for its parent, it has run into headwinds in recent years, forced to grapple with new consumer behaviors have affected subscriptions to its flagship cable outlets and a new cadre of competitors eager to cultivate sports fans with more heated programming. ESPN’s subscriber base in 2010 stood at 100 million, a peak. In recent months, it has narrowed to around 88 million, and it has recalibrated its employee base with several rounds of layoffs.
“Jimmy is a talented and dedicated leader with the right strategic vision, relentless drive and passion for sports required to lead the stellar ESPN team at this incredibly dynamic time,” said Bob Iger, Disney’s chairman and chief executive, in a statement. “Jimmy forged his career at the intersection of technology, sports and media, and his vast experience and keen perspective will be invaluable in taking ESPN into the future.”
Pitaro replaces John Skipper, an ESPN veteran who stepped down in mid-December after revealing a long-term problem with substance addiction. The disclosure shocked ESPN employees, including several of the company’s most senior executives. George Bodenheimer, a former ESPN chief had been filling Skipper’s role in a 90-day interim.
ESPN’s new chief joins as the company is placing a great deal of energy behind the introduction of “ESPN+” a new video-streaming service that will make hours of both new live games and ESPN library content available to subscribers for $4.99 a month. The new venue is seen as a potential means of re-aggregating some of ESPN’s lost viewership and cajoling die-hards to let go of a few more dollars for content they truly prize. Some of those efforts could be bolstered in the not-too-distant future should Walt Disney close on a $52.4 billion deal to buy the bulk of assets of 21st Century Fox, an acquisition that would include a passel of regional sports cable networks that produce more than 5,500 live games each year.
“As a passionate and lifelong sports fan, I am honored to be joining the ESPN team during such a pivotal time in its storied history,” Pitaro said in a statement. “The appetite for quality sports content across platforms has never been greater, and I am looking forward to working with the talented ESPN team as we continue to redefine the future fan experience.” Disney said it would name an executive to oversee the division Pitaro supervised at a later date. That unit captured $4.83 billion in revenue in 2017, compared with about 5.53 billion in the year-earlier period.
Pitaro has worked with sports in the past. Before joining Disney, he served as a lead executive at Yahoo Media, where he helped build Yahoo Sports. He was named to the head of Disney’s consumer products and digital unit in February 2016 after serving as president of Disney Interactive.
ESPN has several other new projects in the works, including a new New York-based morning program set to launch in April. And it continues to tinker with its flagship “SportsCenter” program, trying to find the right presentation of the program at each time of the day it is broadcast. ESPN has also had to contend with the desires of many of its on-air personalities to voice opinion via social media, a dynamic that recently created a firestorm after host Jemele Hill criticized President Donald Trump. The network has since implemented a new social-media policy that appears, at least for now, to tamp down controversy.