The message delivered by ESPN president John Skipper on Wednesday afternoon to nearly 500 analysts, commentators, play-by-play voices, reporters and writers was clear:
ESPN remains the No. 1 brand in sports media.
In what the network tabbed as “Talent Gathering 2017,” Skipper and a host of ESPN senior management addressed the company’s front-facing talent (meaning those who present themselves to the public via audio, digital or television) at the company’s Bristol headquarters. The topics at the presentation included ESPN’s current priorities, the recent changes to the company’s social media policy, how political and social issues should be handled by editorial staffers, how the company approaches sexual harassment allegations and upcoming initiatives. Staffers sat on folding chairs at the ESPN KidsCenter, which serves as a daycare center when not hosting talent gatherings.
“Skipper’s message was we need to control the sky-is-falling narrative better since that’s just not the case,” said one staffer in attendance. “I would say the first hour was rally the troops, a big-time pep rally: here’s our great data, look at our great numbers. The next time someone is telling you we are losing steam, it just isn’t the case.”
“The two tent poles were confidence and pride,” said another ESPN staffer.
Skipper cited the company’s NBA deal—ESPN has committed $12.6 billion for the rights to the NBA through 2025, a dollar figure that has been criticized in some circles—as a good one for ESPN. He cited the increased viewership numbers for the NBA this year (over 20%) and told staffers that the NBA was “an ascendant league” and “I challenge vigorously” anyone who said ESPN overpaid.
Social media was a major topic of discussion, especially given the many times ESPN has found itself in the news in this area. That part of the presentation was handled by vice president Kevin Merida, the editor in chief of The Undefeated and a former managing editor of The Washington Post. Merida emphasized not to enter into political areas, though made clear that if a politician waded into the sports sphere, commentators could comment. SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt introduced Merida and was self-deprecating about how little value there was in engaging in back and forth with people on Twitter.
Merida pointed out to the group that there was a clause in the social media policy where management reserved the right to take action if staffers violated it. “He was very measured and I thought appealed to the people with reason in the room,” said one ESPN staffer. Merida told the audience that he had spoken to ESPN on-air staffers who are active on Twitter—including Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain and Van Pelt—to get feedback on their social media experience.
Barry Blyn, a vice president of consumer insights, was charged with letting staffers know about ESPN’s social media numbers and also hyped the growth of First Take—a show that once threatened Warriors star Kevin Durant on-air—since moving from ESPN2 to ESPN. Executive vice-president Connor Schell showed a sizzle reel of the best of ESPN Films including its 30 for 30 documentary series and pushed how committed ESPN is to storytelling.
At the two hour mark, Skipper asked for questions from the audience. One source said there were just a handful questions for the ESPN president. “The smart people in the room, I’m not sure they would choose that forum to raise their concerns to John,” said another ESPN staffer.
Skipper was asked about the reported Fox-Disney deal (he didn’t say much) and another question from a football analyst centered around what talent could do if a politician made a comment about sports? There was also a question about how ESPN handles sexual harassment. Staffers in attendance said Skipper reiterated that ESPN has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. (No doubt ESPN talent is well aware of Jami Cantor, a former wardrobe stylist for the NFL Network, filing an amended complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court against NFL Enterprises. In it, she named NFL Network producers and on-air talent as subjecting her to unlawful discrimination and retaliation.) A source said Skipper told the crowd he did not believe sexual harassment was a major issue at ESPN and reiterated in strong terms that he encouraged all staffers to send him emails or set up a meeting with him if they believed any HR violations existed.
After the presentation ended, staffers were treated to sliders, sushi, parfait and coffee among other food. ESPN Front Row, a website run by ESPN PR, offered its recap here of the events here.