×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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.

More Digital

  • Google Stadia is a Net Neutrality

    Google Stadia is a Net Neutrality Nightmare

    At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year, Google announced that it has taken up the long and ever-lengthening dream of the video game streaming service. Meant to replace the hefty, pricey, altogether confounding experience of buying and using various gaming hardware, Google Stadia will run video games on Google’s own hardware in a server [...]

  • crunchyroll logo

    Crunchyroll Raises Subscription Price to $7.99

    AT&T-owned anime subscription video service Crunchyroll is raising its monthly subscription price from $6.95 to $7.99 a month, it announced in an email to members Friday. It’s the service’s first price increase ever, according to a spokesperson. The new pricing will go into effect on May 1 for new subscribers, while existing members will see [...]

  • StyleHaul

    StyleHaul Shuts Down U.S. Operations, Lays Off About 65 Employees

    The axe is falling on StyleHaul: The fashion, beauty and lifestyle digital media and marketing company owned by RTL Group is shuttering U.S. operations, resulting the layoff of around 65 employees. StyleHaul offices in L.A., with about 55 employees, and in New York City, with around 10 staffers, are closing. RTL said StyleHaul’s U.K. operations, [...]

  • Bandsintown Platform Acquires Hypebot, MusicThinkTank

    Bandsintown Platform Acquires Hypebot, MusicThinkTank

    Bandsintown, a leading platform for letting music fans know about upcoming concerts by their favorite artists, has acquired Hypebot, a news site publishing stories about the music industry and technology, and its sister site MusicThinkTank. “I’m proud to share that Hypebot and MusicThinkTank have been acquired by Bandsintown,” wrote Bruce Houghton, the founder of the [...]

  • Vertigo Games Believes ‘Location-Based Virtual Reality’

    Vertigo Games Believes ‘Location-Based Virtual Reality’ Is Future of VR

    As virtual reality becomes more and more available, many developers are looking for new frontiers to expand the experiences offered by the tech. For Netherlands-based Vertigo Games, that next frontier is what they call “location-based virtual reality.” It’s essentially high-quality VR experiences where players aren’t tethered to a PC or even to the confines of [...]

  • GDC 2019: Google's Play For Gaming

    GDC 2019: Google's Play for Gaming Ubiquity, Rise of Ray Tracing, Store Wars

    The Game Developers Conference finished up Friday evening, wrapping one of the most exciting GDCs in recent memory with Google’s splashy entrance into AAA video gaming, the emergence of real-time ray tracing as a compelling technology for film, TV, and games, and the growing war between two global estore powerhouses: Valve’s Steam and the Epic [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content