ESPN is the nation’s biggest sports-media outlet. Now, as many viewers find new ways to watch their favorite games and highlights reels, the Disney-owned company wants to maintain that status by ensuring younger viewers wander under its tent.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday after a presentation to advertisers, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro said the sports-media giant intended to focus on expanding its audience and building a direct-to-consumer business, keeping in mind the emerging behaviors of a new generation of viewers.
“I think we are doing a fantastic job serving the sports fanatic,” said Pitaro. “What about the casual sports customer? Are we doing all we can to serve him or her?” ESPN continues to give sports fans all kinds of content across many distribution channels, he added, but he has asked executives to think “about how we can expand our audience, be more relevant to more people, which could be younger generations” as well as “the casual customer.”
Pitaro’s remarks after taking part in his first “upfront” presentation after being named president of ESPN earlier this year, underscores the company’s changing mission as consumers latch on to video entertainment with different behaviors. As ESPN faces ongoing viewer erosion from cable and satellite customers leaving those systems, it has begun to focus with on the recently launched ESPN+, a broadband-based subscription service that makes available various kinds of sports programming, including a basketball-analysis show from Kobe Bryant; big-league sports matches; and even games of cricket to paying subscribers. Pitaro declined to discuss how many people had signed up for the service since its launch, but said ESPN was “pleased with the number of users” so far as well as the conversion rate of people moving from trials to subscriptions.
He noted ESPN saw potential in so-called “combat sports,” made evident by its recent deals to telecast Top Rank Boxing and UFC mixed-martial arts fighting. “Combat sports in general are of interest to us,” he said.
The executive dismissed concerns that ESPN’s relationship with the NFL was not as solid as it should be. “The relationship is not strained,”he said, noting that he considered the partnership between the two to be critical. Both Pitaro and Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president, programming and scheduling, have made sure to keep in contact with NFL officials in recent weeks, said Pitaro, and both sides are “acknowledging together we need to grow, we want to grow the game of football.”
Still, he declined to comment on the future of “Monday Night Football,” one of the network’s flagship programs, The NFL and ESPN have a rights deal in place that would keep Monday-night games on the sports network though 2021.
ESPN’s interest in finding viewers in new places was supported by some of its announcements, including the production of a ten-part documentary series centered on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls that will debut on ESPN and Netflix in 2019; an “epic” project that looks at NBA basketball, told in the form of a mosaic of short stories that can be viewed on linear TV or in digital fashion; and a new four-part interview series led by baseball great Alex Rodriguez.