The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As ESPN tries to stick to sports, President Jimmy Pitaro must define what that means

ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro says of his network, "We’re here to serve sports fans." (Celeste Sloman for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — New York Yankees first baseman Luke Voit jogged toward the home dugout after the top of the second inning of a recent game against the Tampa Bay Rays, and ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro wanted a baseball.

Seated in the first row, Pitaro, a lean 49 and dressed in a white dress shirt and slacks, stood up and waved at Voit. He hopped on each foot; he jumped a little.

“I’ve never got one,” Pitaro said. “I’ve been to hundreds of games.”

Voit tossed the ball a section over.

A few innings later, Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner ran in from left field after catching the third out, and Pitaro repeated the dance, again to no avail.

“MLB should make them give out the ball!” Pitaro said. “Come on, how do you not throw the ball into the stands?”

Pitaro has led the world’s largest sports media company for 17 months, and this is the image he has sought to cultivate: sports as an almost childlike escape from the real world, with his network set apart from the larger culture wars raging in the country.

“I’ve had this discussion internally with hundreds of our employees that sports is about uniting and ESPN needs to unite people around sports,” Pitaro said. “That’s our role, or one of our roles.”

Creating such an enterprise today is complicated, as is the question of whether ESPN really has softened its approach under its new leader or merely rebranded itself through a Pitaro-led nip-and-tuck.

The morning after chants of “Send her back!” were yelled at a President Trump rally, mimicking racist tweets the president had written about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who was born in Somalia, popular TV and radio host Dan Le Batard challenged Pitaro’s restrictions on political commentary, lambasting the kind of network Pitaro repeatedly has said he wants ESPN to be.

“We here at ESPN don’t have the stomach for the fight,” Le Batard said on his radio show last week. “We don’t talk about what is happening unless there is some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through.”

After Dan Le Batard ripped Trump, ESPN again faces a political mess

The brief controversy was reminiscent of the months before Pitaro took over. In 2017, there was chaos at ESPN: Leaks sprang from the company; ESPN was a target in the White House briefing room; Pitaro’s predecessor, John Skipper, abruptly resigned in December 2017 after what he described as an extortion attempt following a cocaine purchase. “It was the worst year in the company’s 40 years,” one ESPN employee said.

ESPN enjoyed a meteoric rise over its first three decades, during which it secured the rights to marquee properties such as “Monday Night Football” and at times seemed to be printing money. Before Pitaro, the network expanded in other ways, experimenting with long-form writing project Grantland (now shuttered), launching a website, the Undefeated, to cover race in sports and honoring Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender former athlete, which incited anger from social conservatives.

But today ESPN is under continued pressure from external forces such as cord-cutting and increased competition. Tech companies such as Amazon and Facebook could vie for live sports rights, and websites such as Bleacher Report cater to young fans. Some star athletes have their own production companies.

Bob Iger, head of ESPN’s parent company, Disney, handpicked Pitaro to lead the network through the turbulence. Pitaro is the kind of guy who goes straight for a salad at a buffet overflowing with goodies, who zeroes out his email inbox every night, a seasoned executive who understands corporate culture. When asked about Pitaro’s best qualities, one ESPN executive said, “He runs a good meeting.”

Le Batard’s monologue, though, both defied Pitaro’s narrowed mission and questioned the costs of it.

“We have to understand we’re here to serve sports fans,” Pitaro said at the Yankees game, weeks before Le Batard’s comments. “All sports fans.”

A matter of perception

In 2017, Pitaro was a Disney executive sitting at the staff meetings with Iger as ESPN’s challenges piled up. There were questions about whether the network would re-up its rights deal with the NFL, while “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill, on Twitter, called Trump a white supremacist, prompting the president to tweet, “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming).”

When Pitaro was appointed president in March 2018, he saw internal data that showed a significant gap between how Republicans and Democrats viewed ESPN’s on-air talent and the entertainment value of the production. He held town halls with employees and stressed in public comments that politics would be discussed at ESPN only through the lens of sports. The network also says its research finds that fans, regardless of political affiliation, do not want to hear about politics on ESPN.

The results weren’t necessarily drastic; ESPN was never covering immigration policy to begin with. But Le Batard’s recent comments notwithstanding, fewer ESPN reporters and hosts are tweeting about Trump now, while some programs on the daytime lineup have pared back opinions to focus more on highlights. Hill left the network after reaching a buyout. Still, ESPN has covered U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe trading barbs with Trump this summer, and you can hear debates over white privilege on the morning television show “First Take.”

What Pitaro was really after with the tweaks and public statements was changing the perception of ESPN by its viewers — and also, to a degree, its mission. “Right or wrong, fair or unfair, perceptions become reality,” he said. And thanks also to Trump’s feud with the NFL abating, Pitaro believes he was successful. According to the same internal data, the partisan gap in perception of the network has disappeared.

Last week, though, Le Batard, the son of Cuban immigrants, loudly and publicly challenged Pitaro’s notion of what gets defined as politics, while questioning its underlying logic: that it’s okay to address a threatening chant by the president’s supporters only if someone such as LeBron James says something first. The incident raised questions from others inside the company, too. Stephen A. Smith emailed Pitaro, expressing support for the politics policy but seeking guidance for how to handle moments that do transcend politics, such as the chant at the rally. In his email, Smith predicted politics would become a bigger story during an election year in which athletes are poised to be vocal and wondered what those athletes might think of ESPN.

Sally Jenkins: ESPN should broaden political discussion instead of banning it

For now, Pitaro has quelled the Le Batard controversy. He met with the host in New York on Thursday, and Le Batard will continue at ESPN. If Le Batard feels the need to address a political issue in the future, he will check with higher-ups, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation. And unlike in 2017, there was no accompanying tweet from Trump, and the drama felt contained.

“What Jimmy has done well is bring a sense of calm and make sure the place isn’t a bull’s eye for people,” said Mark Shapiro, a former ESPN executive and now president of media conglomerate Endeavor.

But as Smith indicated, there will almost certainly be more political moments coming that could test the company’s red line. Hill, who now hosts a podcast and writes for the Atlantic, said: “Dan was responding to a moment in our country, where we’re coming to terms with our own conscience. It’s bigger than sports. I just wish ESPN would have more confidence in their position because when they respond to the politics criticism, which is a lie anyway, they only give it credence. It feels like they care too much about what the wrong people, like Fox News and Breitbart, think.”

Pitaro declined to address Le Batard’s comments or how the company is handling them, but he remains resolute in what the network’s viewers want.

Asked whether he was sensitive to talent feeling compelled to speak out during this political moment, Pitaro said: “Of course I am, and I have my own views. But I also recognize that when I or one of our on-air personalities speak publicly that that is received as the opinions of ESPN, and that can’t be. We look at what our fans are telling us.”

As for whether it was possible to separate sports from the larger world today, Pitaro said: “What we’ve said from Day 1 is that we’re the place of record, we are covering the intersection of sports and politics. That hasn’t changed. Why is it impossible to make the distinction between sports news and non-sports news?”

A fan’s notes

Pitaro grew up in Westchester County outside of New York, looking up to his father, who was a Navy Seabee during the Vietnam War and then started his own paving company. (Pitaro’s sister is MLB’s general counsel.)

He was, and remains, a die-hard Yankees fan, naming his childhood dog Pags, after infielder Mike Pagliarulo.

“I loved turning over a baseball card and seeing Yankees, Yankees, Yankees,” Pitaro said. “I think being a fan informs my decisions now. I can view everything through that lens.”

Pitaro was an oft-injured wide receiver and running back during four years at Cornell, then went to St. John’s for law school. He spent several years in New York as a litigator, mostly defending insurance companies, but found he preferred mergers and acquisitions work. “I wanted to do deals,” Pitaro said.

In 2000, he moved to Los Angeles with his wife, actress Jean Louisa Kelly, and joined Yahoo. In nine years at Yahoo, Pitaro rose to oversee the tech giant’s news and sports divisions and led the acquisition of recruiting website before leaving for Disney.

Pitaro began as co-president of Disney Interactive, which included gaming and, and later took over consumer products, as well, but often told Iger he was interested in a role at ESPN. He is the first ESPN president to come out of Disney’s ranks, rather than from inside the network.

To understand Pitaro’s ESPN, it helps to juxtapose his background with that of Skipper, a North Carolina native who cut his teeth in the media business at Rolling Stone. Under Skipper’s leadership, ESPN branched out beyond its hardcore sports offerings, with its award-winning “30 for 30” documentary series and “Outside the Lines” investigative journalism. Its flagship magazine commissioned pieces from writers such as Taffy Brodesser-Akner and novelist J.R. Moehringer; he launched the Undefeated, a website that covers the intersection of race and sports, and was beloved by many on-air hosts. Le Batard cried on the air the day Skipper resigned.

But by the time he stepped down, there were also some inside ESPN who wondered whether his personal issues affected his leadership. Skipper said they didn’t.

Pitaro is the pivot. If Skipper wanted to have a single secretary when he was president, Pitaro has a motto for decision-making: Discuss. Debate. Decide. Align. (“Can’t have people at the water cooler questioning you,” he said.) Skipper reads Malcolm Lowry; Pitaro pores over media and tech newsletters every night. Skipper smoked pot with Jann Wenner; Pitaro cracks the occasional dad joke: At the Yankees game, he looked at the protective netting from foul balls above the dugout, chuckled and asked: “Is it a net positive? Or a net negative?”

Skipper, who now is the executive chairman of international streaming service DAZN, also oversaw ESPN before the disruption of cord-cutting was fully understood (the network has lost some 14 million subscribers over the past seven years), when massive guarantees from cable networks made it easier to take big swings.

With more pressure on ESPN today, Pitaro has pushed to expand digital content, such as “SportsCenter” on Snapchat and Hoop Streams, a pregame show that airs on ESPN’s app ahead of big NBA games. He has greenlit a new daily morning podcast that is expected to debut in the fall, and he has championed ESPN+, the network’s new direct-to-consumer service that will be key for Disney in the coming streaming wars. ESPN has less autonomy from Disney than ever before. Skipper had around 7,000 full-time direct reports vs. close to 5,000 for Pitaro. While Pitaro runs the content for ESPN+, Disney executive Kevin Mayer oversees the business and technology.

“I remember talking to Jimmy at Yahoo about the Internet’s impact on media, and even then he was telling me about direct-to-consumer,” said Max Kellerman, the host of “First Take,” who also worked for Pitaro at Yahoo. “I’ve worked for a lot of media executives, and I don’t think any of them have a greater understanding or a vision for what sports fans want and positioning themselves for the future.”

Doing business

A few years out of law school, Pitaro was at John F. Kennedy International Airport when he stumbled into Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. A star-struck Pitaro introduced himself and struck up a conversation; Steinbrenner recognized his wife’s name and asked if she’d like to sing the national anthem at a game. By the next morning, a date was arranged, and a few weeks later, he was on the field recording his wife.

He recalled the story in between pitches by the Yankees’ CC Sabathia, who Pitaro noted is now doing some side work for ESPN. Asked if he worried about the future of his favorite sport, he said: “The challenge faced by any sport is the same question every media executive faces: How are you appealing to a younger generation? How are you growing your audience?”

He added, “Reed Hastings at Netflix said it right: ‘Fortnite is all of our competition.’ ”

As part of his maniacal interest in data, Pitaro commissions market research studies on how young audiences are consuming media — what platforms they are on, what companies they are following. The verdict: They want more access to athletes and behind the scenes looks at their lives. “They want to feel like the athlete is talking to them,” he said.

ESPN has partnered with a number of athletes during his tenure. Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning have shows where they break down film, and Kevin Durant has his own talk show. Pitaro said the content is popular, but the strategy raises two questions. The first is whether it makes critical coverage of athletes more difficult. Before Durant’s show debuted on ESPN+, ESPN the Magazine ran a cover story about his off-the-field business acumen that promoted the ESPN show. It felt as much like synergy marketing as a profile.

In a world where athletes such as James and Stephen Curry can start their own production companies and communicate directly with their fans, the near monopoly ESPN once had on servicing sports fans is gone. That means the power dynamic between athlete and network has shifted in some ways toward the most famous athletes, the exact people with whom Pitaro wants to be in business.

The second question is if metrics are dictating ESPN’s content decisions, does that sacrifice an element of creativity? As one former ESPN employee noted, “ 'PTI’ and ’30 for 30′ didn’t come from market research,” referencing “Pardon the Interruption,” a popular daily talk show.

Pitaro dismissed the idea that numbers dictate all of his decisions. “It’s not like we’re looking at data and saying we need a film on Michael Vick,” he said. Although he has emphasized the importance of good relationships with the leagues, he noted ESPN pieces this year that investigated stadium food and the integrity of NBA refereeing, which prompted a scathing response from the league. “I am telling you we are not shying away from critical stories, and investigative journalism remains a priority for us.”

At the Yankees game, Pitaro cheered every Sabathia strikeout. He pointed to the bleachers, where he used to sit with friends at the old Yankee Stadium. He laughed about the DVR’d Yankees games that he watches every night. This fandom is what he wants to channel to at ESPN. Since 1979, when the upstart network was launched, it has been central to the lives of sports fans. In America in 2019, Pitaro’s vision could be cowardly corporate-speak — to borrow from Le Batard — or the best way to position ESPN for the future.

“People ask me about the competition, whoever it is,” Pitaro said. “But as soon as someone’s a sports fan, no matter how they become a sports fan, where do they go next? ESPN.”

In the sixth inning, Voit again jogged back to the dugout and Pitaro returned to his feet, waving for the ball. Voit tossed it a few seats over, and after a ricochet, it dribbled along the top of the dugout, where Pitaro snatched it before handing it over to a kid.

“I can always say I got one,” Pitaro said.

He was beaming.