Final Say: John Skipper

 

Joe Faraoni/ESPN

John Skipper, 57, is the president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. Previously, he was ESPN’s executive vice president of content, and has also served as general manager of ESPN The Magazine. He lives in Wilton.


What are the plans for ESPN 8, The Ocho?
The Ocho? [laughs] I don’t think we’re going to actually name anything The Ocho, but I think we’ll have ocho. We have ESPN 1, 2, 3, ESPN News, Deportes, Classic, ESPNU and The Longhorn Network, so we already have eight networks already. We’re not going to use The Ocho twice—I’m not going to give Ben Stiller the satisfaction.

Is it possible for sports to become even more popular?
Will it become more popular? Sports is pretty central to the culture. What I do believe is that there’s still demand for more sports because there are still people who have games they care about that aren’t produced and available widely. So yeah, I think sports will remain ascendant. The other issue you’ve got, of course, is that sports are live and in this current media environment, the only thing you have to watch live other than news—although this is scheduled, meaning we know when the Rose Bowl is and it’s unique, so you can’t knock it off, and it’s live, so you can’t DVR it. This all that portends for growth. Ninety-nine percent of all ESPN is watched live, and that’s a big advantage, say if you want to advertise a movie on Thursday because it’s opening on Friday, and you want to make sure that everybody is watching right then and not the next Wednesday on their DVR.  

Are sports over-exposed?  
No, I don’t think so. Fans want as much choice as possible. But it’s a choice—if you don’t want to watch it, you don’t have to watch it. It’s not going to get overexposed. My son went to Davidson College in North Carolina, and the Southern Conference tournament was this weekend and he was able to watch all of it on ESPN3, so he doesn’t think of that as being overexposed. He just thinks of that as being available.

It seems that for sports like the NFL and MLB, the coverage is now year-round. How does the ESPN 24/7 news cycle play into that?  
You could argue that ESPN was quite influential in that. Long before I got here, ESPN began to make—out of necessity—events out of the off season. The NFL draft, training camps . . . now we do it with college-recruiting sign-up days, we do it with Major League Baseball winter meetings, we do it with the NBA Summer League, so if you’re a fan, you’re a fan year-round. Even when there are not games, you’re a fan because your team is trading for players or signing free agents. So almost all sports are year-round now. You don’t see the seasonal swings you used to see.

FOX just announced its own sports network and—
You’re kidding! [laughs] I need to get some information on this!

Right? And NBC is increasing its sports coverage, so is there enough content for everyone?  
Well . . . it’s an excellent question because the answer is “Yes,” and “No.” There is literally enough content, right? What there is a scarcity of is high-profile big events. There’s a lot of content, right? There’s at least 300 American universities that play college football and basketball—there’s more than that, 500 or 600—there’s wrestling teams, there’s high-school track teams . . . but when you get to the things that aggregate an audience of a million-plus people, there’s not that much. There’s Major League Baseball, NBA, SEC football, Wimbledon, etc. So the issue for these new networks is that there’s plenty of content to put on, but is there big-event content that can actually aggregate you an audience? Because you need those big events to have your studio programming get a big audience because it’s all about lead-ins. Very little studio programming is appointment viewing. Mostly you tune in to see the game and you stay around afterward to watch “SportsCenter.” You tune in early to see “College Game Day” because you’re going to be watching the game afterward.

NBC Sports has been infringing on your turf by setting up in Stamford—do you feel like the home team?  
Oh yeah. I wouldn’t use the word “infringe.” I mean, NBC has moved into the 24/7 cable business, they have a radio-syndication business, they’ve been more aggressive with their digital business, so I’d certainly suggest that they’re looking to compete with us. The question of whether they’ve infringed on us or not is not clear. I think so far we’ve been holding our own.

ESPN is one of Gov. Malloy’s “First Five” participants and has demonstrated a big commitment to the state—other than the tax breaks, why here?   
Well you know, it’s legacy and it’s competitive advantage and it’s culture, right? This is where it started back in 1979. At various times in the company’s history, there were decision points where the company decided to stay here rather than go somewhere else, which turned out to be an enormous advantage. None of those decision points have been recently, by the way—they were early in the company’s history. We’re here, we’re going to be here and we think it’s an enormous competitive advantage because we’ve created a Bristol culture. It’s a culture of work ethic, a sense of not being in the mainstream in New York City, the media capital of the world—we’re up here in Bristol and there’s sort of a hometown advantage to being here. People feel real pride at being from Southington and Cheshire and Plainville and Bristol and Waterbury and Southbury and Southtown—wait, I don’t think there’s actually a Southtown. [laughs] So we think it’s great, we have no intention of going anywhere. We like being in this particular part of the state as well. You mentioned NBC; they decided to go to Stamford—that works for them because they’re really a New York City company. We’re a Bristol company. We’re proud of being from here.

More plans for expansion?   
Our business is good. Right now we’re building a new digital center, too, which is 193,000 square feet of space. We’ve never had a moment on this campus, I’m told, where there wasn’t building and growth. As president of this company, it’s my intention to continue to be a growth company.

Biggest challenge for the worldwide leader in sports?   
You know, it’s hard to say that there’s a big challenge; there are several big challenges. Maintaining the culture of the company. Maintaining the quality of the people who work here is very, very important. We have a very successful business model, which has as one of its important elements the pay-television business, so the continuation of that business is an important issue for us. Competition is important, you mentioned that. You heard me talk about how important big-event live rights are, and that is an issue for us, maintaining that live rights portfolio. Making sure we get into new platforms—digital, mobile apps. If you have to sum it up into one thing, we just have to keep our edge—we have to be not complacent. As long as we concentrate on what we’re doing—we have an established business, we have a long head start, we have the best brand in sports. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing and not get complacent.

Biggest challenge for the leader of the worldwide leader in sports?
The biggest challenge is managing my time, prioritizing, figure out where best to use my time because the range of things I can get involved in from rights deals to innovations owned to studio programming to relationships with major partners, distribution deals to being out at the Walt Disney Company to participate there . . . . It’s also staying in touch with as many people as possible. This is a very people-oriented culture, so I make a point to get down to the cafeteria and walk around, see people and shake hands. It’s one person with a plethora of things to do, so it’s figuring out how to spend my time, that’s the hardest challenge.

What’s one aspect of your job that no one knows?   
I don’t know that people know really how much fun this is. I mean, it’s got stress and challenges and demands but it’s got to be one of the best ten jobs in the world, right? You’re working for ESPN, people love sports and it’s fun. I should say one of my biggest challenges is convincing my family that I’m working when I’m at sporting events! They just think I’m having fun.

Do you get to watch a lot of live sporting events?
I do get to a lot of sporting events. Over the course of the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve had the great fortune to be at most of the major sporting events in the world. I try not to tell people on airplanes stuff I’ve done because I’m concerned they’ll throw me out.

Favorite venue?
You know I’m a big fan of the North Carolina Tarheels, so my favorite sporting venue was the old Carmichael Auditorium where North Carolina used to play basketball in, which was fabulous and fun. So I’ll stick to that, but you know, I love The Garden and going to see the Knicks play. College football stadiums are just fabulous. I mean you go to The Big House in Michigan, you go down to Blacksburg and see Virgina Tech play, you go to the Rose Bowl and sit there and watch the Rose Bowl, you go to Austin, Texas . . . I love college football stadiums. I also happen to love the English Premier League, so I’m fond of White Hart Lane.

You’re a big soccer fan—why has it struggled to gain the popularity of the other big sports in the U.S.?
Well, it’s a crowded landscape, right? And it’s a legacy. There have been big shifts—there was a time when this was not a professional sports team country, when it was about boxing, horse racing, it was about college football at one point, but now it’s about the NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR, big-time golf and tennis. Soccer’s coming, though. It’s just got to find its place in this very crowded landscape. We’re the only country in the world to have this wide variety of popular sports. Most countries, it’s just a couple of things. In the U.S., we have lots and lots of sports variety, and soccer is wedging its way in and becoming more important, and I think that trend will continue.  

What other sports do you enjoy/play?
The thing that I enjoyed playing the most in my life was basketball, and I’m too feeble now to play. But that’s what I enjoyed playing in my life. Back to your earlier question: I have the great pleasure of being at the Super Bowl, I’ll be at the NCAA Women’s Final Four, I was at the World Series last year, I get to the U.S. Open tennis in New York, I get to The Masters—I always loved basketball, so I like it all. I love all my children!

Speaking of children, Given your ESPN and Disney background, your sons must’ve gotten used to access to things that most kids don’t experience—at any point, did they realize, “Hey, not everyone lives like this?”
Oh, yeah! I have 27- and 23-year-old boys, and they understand how lucky they are. [laughs] They can never become estranged from their father because my tickets are too good and they might actually have to figure out how to use StubHub!

Is it challenging to raise kids with such access?
We’ve been having a lighthearted conversation, but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my life—my wife Jessica probably had more to do with it than me. The challenge is keeping your kids grounded when they have so many opportunities and privilege. There’s nothing wrong with being privileged; what you can’t have it leading to is being spoiled or taking it for granted, and my kids do not. They never get anything that they don’t thank me for or anyone else who helped them to get the access. I’m very proud, obviously.

Sports Illustrated recently named you the "4th Most Powerful Person in Sports"—how much of that is you and how much of that is ESPN?  
I’d say it’s about 99.99 percent ESPN and .01 percent Skipper. I mean, anybody in this job is going to be on the list. I’m in a different job, I’m not on the list.

Where you rank on that list is due to you—you could be 10 or 20.  
ESPN has more to do with that. I am proud of working hard and making the contribution, and I’m proud of having the privilege of getting this job, so that’s an accomplishment, but the job carries with it the responsibility and the influence. I walk out of this job and my influence in the sporting business is pretty small.

How was it moving from Disney family-centric content to ESPN’s sports-centric atmosphere?
It was actually remarkably easy. I don’t know if it’s so much as “family” to “sports” as it’s about the culture and ethos of the companies. If you listen to Bob Iger [CEO of The Walt Disney Company], he’ll say it’s about creativity, it’s about integrity, it’s about innovation, it’s about growth, it’s about collaboration, so the Walt Disney Company and the ESPN division are very consistent. You don’t get the bends going from one culture to the other because there’s not much difference in the oxygen.

You started back in print—how was the transition from print to multimedia?  
I was very fortunate. As you know, I love magazines—you work for a magazine. It was a very outstanding transition because there’s just more growth and vitality in other segments. Again, I have great affection and respect for magazines, so I don’t mean to be flippant talking to a magazine writer, you understand. But the transition wasn’t that hard. The fundamental things apply, right? I feel like I’m in Casablanca: “The fundamental things apply, as time goes by . . .” [laughs] If you’re creative in one medium, you can be creative in another medium. The main thing is understanding what the attributes of the medium are. In print, it’s about paper and ink and photography and design and ease of navigation because I can turn to page 73 quicker than I can figure out where page 73 is ESPN.com. But to me, it didn’t seem like a difficult transition.

Do you think print is dying? Or dead?  
Dying? No. But is it challenged? Yeah. By the way, people love magazines, they love print. It’s the business—it’s just not where advertisers are putting their money. People haven’t quit reading magazines. We have 15 million people every two weeks reading ESPN Magazine, and they love it and they like it. But selling the ads into it is a challenge right now.

Given your magazine background [Rolling Stone and SPIN], What’s your favorite type of music?
Reggae. I have one of the largest reggae collections in Connecticut—sometime you can come out and do a photo spread on my reggae collection. I have thousands of reggae CDs. I don’t know what I’m doing with CDs, but . . . . I’m thinking in Fairfield County, I don’t have a lot of competition for reggae collections.

Favorite reggae artist?
Bob Marley.

Favorite musical athlete?
Musical athlete? No, I can’t think of a single, great musical athlete. Well, Bernie Williams is a real musician, but he ain’t no Bob Marley. I’m not struggling to figure out if I’m putting on some Bernie or Bob. [laughs]

Favorite SportsCenter commercial?
Yeah, I do actually have a favorite one. I’ve got to admit though, this is an old one, but it’s a funny one. I have never seen or said out loud, “Charley, come out and get your whuppin’!” without laughing. It’s the old Evander Holyfield and Charley Steiner commercial where Evander is walking through the office going, “Charley, come get your whuppin’!” and Charley is hiding under the desk. I laugh every time I see that.

MTV—no more music it seems. Other cable networks also seem to change their original mission trying to reach more audiences. does ESPN have that concern?
No. In fact, I think if anything, we have focused in the last few years on core stick-and-ball sports, sports, sports. There was a time when we veered a little bit toward ESPN Hollywood movies, but we think sports is ascendant in this culture and we’re going to ride that. Though I must confess, as a kid—ESPN, MTV and CNN all kind of started together in 1979, and were really the core of how the cable-television business got started because people wanted their MTV, they thought, “Wow, 24/7 news, 24/7 sports? This is fabulous!” and I think the issue for MTV is that they had kind of had a thing that happened: Music videos—free content, by the way, that was promotional in nature—and it was great. I remember watching Martha Quinn and Alan Hunter and those guys, but 24/7 news and 24/7 sports are still very excellent concepts.

Can we expect more fictional content?
Right now, no. It is not our intention to re-enter that.

ESPN is 34 this year—where do you see it in 34 years?
I see it from a very long distance away because I’m pretty sure I don’t have 34 years left! [laughs] I see it from the beach. I see myself in a hammock watching television! [laughs] This is a very sustainable business over a long period of time. There’s nobody foolish enough to predict what the world is going to look like in 34 years—what would that be, 2047? But if you had to make bets, you’re betting on the sustainability of sports video—and I didn’t deliberately say television because it’s just video, right?—I’d make that bet. I can’t think of anything that’s a better bet, not even oil and gas because they’ll run out at some point. Sports will never run out.
 

Final Say: John Skipper

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