2017-12-22 15:48:02
A Sports Titan’s Strange and Sudden Abdication

15:48, December 22 224 0

As president of ESPN, John Skipper was among the most important people in sports. He dropped billions of dollars on professional leagues and college conferences to broadcast their games. He dictated when and how we watched and talked about them.

And then, suddenly, he walked away. Skipper, 62, abruptly resigned from his throne on Monday, citing a substance addiction that he said he had for many years, though even co-workers and confidants said they hadn’t known about it. The resignation stunned them and left the network without a frontman for the makeover that Skipper and his boss, Robert Iger, Disney’s chief executive, had spent the past several months engineering.

Skipper was an unlikely character for his lofty post. He has a master’s degree in English literature and remains a voracious reader who loves the written word. His soft Southern drawl and affable manner betrayed his North Carolina roots and made him a beloved figure inside a giant media company often portrayed as slick and soulless by outsiders.

Skipper cut a wide swath through ESPN, negotiating billion-dollar deals and meddling with copy for the magazine from hour to hour. In a large newsroom of hard-nosed reporters he occasionally socialized with, he didn’t have a reputation for partying or erratic behavior. The suddenness of his resignation and the totality of it have been met with bemusement and skepticism.

Why not take a leave of absence, enter a rehabilitation program and return to the most powerful position in American sports business — and a multimillion-dollar salary — in a few months?

Heightening the mystery, the resignation came on the heels of a whirlwind week in which a buoyant and energetic Skipper rallied his troops and assured broadcast partners that after a bumpy year, ESPN would retain its position as sports broadcasting’s dominant power. Forget the cord cutters and critics who have scuffed up ESPN over the past year over issues like the network’s colossal payments for N.B.A. rights and its projecting a liberal bias among on-air personalities.

That was the message Skipper delivered on Dec. 13 to nearly 500 employees at a staff meeting at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. Kevin Merida, a senior vice president for ESPN and editor in chief of The Undefeated, an ESPN website, was part of the program and sat next to Skipper. He said it was a galvanizing moment that many had come to expect from the network’s president.

“It was a really great day,” Merida said. “You looked out and saw all that talent in the room, and John was being John.”

Like everyone else interviewed for this article, Merida said he had no idea that Skipper — who was emailing people over the weekend about coming business and had meetings scheduled for Monday — would resign. “He has a rare combination that you don’t often see of being admired for his leadership and beloved for his humanity,” Merida said.

Skipper was the architect of ESPN’s must-see TV strategy. He used some $600 million that ESPN collects every month in subscriber fees to build a moat between the network and competitors by paying handsomely for exclusive broadcast rights to live events. He engineered a nine-year, $12 billion deal with the N.B.A. and a $7.3 billion deal for the college football playoffs, among many other major events, including all four tennis Grand Slams and golf’s Masters tournament.

“He was prepared to make big bets,” said Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12, “and take a leap of faith with confidence and conviction that if ESPN was well placed strategically with rights, they would get the subscriber fees and advertising to make that happen.”

But as president of ESPN he wasn’t just about the telecast of a big event, which often feels like a promotional campaign for the sport and team involved. Skipper, who came to Disney’s magazine division after working at Rolling Stone, was also a champion of rigorous journalism. He pushed ESPN beyond televised scores and highlights by starting robust editorial endeavors like ESPN the Magazine and the “30 for 30” documentary series.

“He was a learned guy,” said Jeremy Schaap, a co-host of the weekly E:60, the newsmagazine show Skipper championed.

It is a sentiment repeated by most who know Skipper well. Justin Connolly, an ESPN executive, described cross-country plane flights where Skipper would speed read through a novel while simultaneously watching sports on an iPad. Keith Olbermann, whom Skipper hired back to the network in 2013 to head a news and opinion show, said Skipper described how he would read a dozen or more books at the same time.

To Olbermann, this was a metaphor for how Skipper is able to forge deep personal connections that have little to do with business interests.

“It suggests a certain working of the mind in which you have 20 active cubbyholes and they are all fully lit,” Olbermann said. “You feel like you have just read them and been in touch with them, and you go to that space and you pick up that book where you left it off. It could be two nights ago or two months ago.”

Skipper was also respected for making the ESPN staff — including public-facing employees — more diverse. Wright Thompson, a writer for the network’s magazine and a friend of Skipper’s, said he believed that it was Skipper’s southern upbringing that led him to champion diversity throughout the company.

“When you grow up in the South that John grew up in, and are as compassionate and empathetic as he naturally is, there is no other option,” Thompson said.

“I think his mind was expanded through literature,” Thompson added. “It is no accident that he is the single most well-read human being I’ve ever met.”

Skipper signed a contract extension, through 2021, a few months before his resignation. His portfolio was about to expand drastically, with ESPN’s parent company, Disney, acquiring 21st Century Fox’s 22 regional sports networks, and ESPN starting a stand-alone streaming service in 2018.

The outlook, however, was not entirely rosy.

The network has lost more than 13 million subscribers since its peak of 100 million in 2011. Despite massive changes in media consumption, Skipper’s will to spend enormous sums on broadcast rights had begun to result in a loss of revenue for the company. Over the last two years, Skipper oversaw three rounds of layoffs in which about 550 employees lost their jobs.

Skipper tried to position ESPN for a digital future that would not rely so heavily on monthly fees from pay-television distributors — a revenue stream that has slowed. In 2018, ESPN will open a studio in New York City. New morning shows and afternoon shows will have their debuts. The biggest bet the network is making, however, is on ESPN Plus, a subscription streaming product to attract viewers who are not cable subscribers.

“His overall legacy, as we get further away from his tenure, will be a positive one, I believe,” Richard Deitsch, a media reporter at Sports Illustrated who covers ESPN closely, said.

When Skipper addressed his work force in Bristol on Dec. 13, he believed his legacy was in good shape as well.

“At the end of this meeting I want you to be confident about the future of ESPN,” Skipper told the employees gathered. “I want you to feel proud about working here, and I want you to feel that your best efforts are needed for that future and to feel that pride.”