- ESPN's president resigned on Monday, leaving a currently unstable company but also a prodigious legacy.
There have been a great many negative stories told about the last few years at ESPN, a period during which the company has turned from a goliath into, well, Goliath himself, laid low by the slings and stones of upstarts, though more than that by unavoidable changes in consumer taste. Skyrocketing sports rights fees and cord-cutting cable subscribers have cut ESPN’s margins down to size, and in response, the Bristol, Conn.-based sports-media concern has undertaken multiple rounds of layoffs (unthinkable a decade ago) and constrained its once boundless ambitions.
Remarkably, though, despite all this, the man who steered ESPN from 2012 until today, John Skipper, enjoys considerable respect and loyalty from those both inside and outside the company and has received little in the way of blame—a testament to the many initiatives, careers and voices he has championed within the sometimes-meatheaded media empire.
On Monday, the 61-year-old Skipper unexpectedly stepped down from his position, citing “a substance addiction” with which he had “struggled for many years,” sending shockwaves through a “stunned” ESPN (as my colleague Richard Deitsch reported earlier today). “I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down. As I deal with this issue and what it means to me and my family, I ask for appropriate privacy and a little understanding,” Skipper said in a statement.
The peculiar timing of his departure—in the wake of a long-term contract extension for Skipper, a major corporate transaction for ESPN parent Disney, a year of public-relations missteps for ESPN, and a national reckoning that has cost many powerful men their jobs—is likely to be the central concern of Skipper-related discussion in the coming days.
But the speculation should not distract from the discussion of what Skipper achieved while in charge of the Worldwide Leader. He made ESPN gobs of cash, sure, but he also made the network smarter and sharper. There is a reason everyone from Jemele Hill to Keith Olbermann to Tom Junod went to bat for the man and his character after his departure on Monday. Dan Le Batard was crying while announcing the news on his show.
Boasting a magazine-world background and a master’s in English from Columbia (his studies focused on British satire), Skipper arrived at ESPN in 1997 to help launch ESPN The Magazine. After less than a decade, he was overseeing all content for ESPN, pushing the company to invest extensively in digital alongside sports rights, DVR- and disruption-proofing it for a time. Skipper championed soccer and the NBA, realizing that ESPN, armed with its many affiliates and platforms, could get more out of broadcast rights than any of its competitors could. (Whatever rights-fee increases the network had to pay it could pass along to consumers by way of their cable bills.)
What a model Skipper inherited when he took the reins from George Bodenheimer in 2012. (Bodenheimer has now returned to the company on an interim basis to replace Skipper.) He could have sat beside the mail drop in Bristol and watched the checks roll in. Instead, though, he took chances—on Bill Simmons and his since-shuttered Grantland project, which published a host of ambitious work that would never have found a home elsewhere in ESPN’s empire; on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site; on The Undefeated; on 30 for 30. As investments, these projects mattered little within the context of ESPN’s gigantic budget, but they conferred enough prestige upon the company to keep Skipper’s favor. (His tastes were not exclusively highbrow—he also boosted the career of Jamie Horowitz, who bears responsibility for First Take.) He also sent a great deal of cash journalists’ way in an era when most every other outlet was scaling back. Even after all the layoffs, ESPN has a fearsome roster of writers and reporters.
Not every initiative of his was a success. He takes the blame for fiascos from ESPN Mobile to Hill’s suspension to the one-episode run of Barstool Van Talk, and the company probably would have been better off sitting out more rights bidding frenzies than it did.
And after all of 2017’s events, he leaves the company in a precarious spot—unsure, as The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis pointed out, of what it even is anymore. Nevertheless, all of sports fandom benefits from an enlightened and ambitious ESPN. In the wake of the unexpected departure of the company’s enlightened and ambitious leader, there is less reason today than there was yesterday to expect that kind of network.