ESPN President John Skipper, one of the most powerful figures in sports and media, stunned employees Monday with his sudden resignation, capping the most tumultuous year in the network’s history and casting uncertainty on its immediate future.
Skipper told employees in an email that he has struggled with a substance addiction for many years and was stepping down from his posts as ESPN president and co-chairman of the Disney Media Networks.
“I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem. . . . I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down,” Skipper wrote.
Skipper has been the network’s guiding force in an unpredictable period, helping it secure television rights to some of the sporting world’s biggest franchises and charged with steadying the ship amid changing viewership habits that resulted in a dramatic drop in subscription numbers in recent years.
Not long ago, the company was regarded as perhaps the most bulletproof in all of media, but this year, ESPN has laid off hundreds of employees amid declining subscriptions and has been rocked by criticism that its talent and programming has become too political. Even President Trump has weighed in, tweeting in September, “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers.”
Despite these challenges, Disney recently had signed Skipper to a contract extension that was supposed to keep him at the helm of ESPN through 2021 and had begun making an aggressive push in the digital realm. Now in addition to plotting a path through a rapidly changing market, the network will embark on an urgent search for a new leader.
“ESPN has been the biggest albatross hanging over Disney’s stock, and so Disney investors and Wall Street will be watching to see who they appoint,” said Eric Jackson, founder of EMJ Capital, a tech and media investment company.
In a statement, Skipper said he discussed the matter with Disney executives “and we mutually agreed that it was appropriate that I resign.” Neither Skipper nor the network specified the nature of his addiction.
“I join John Skipper’s many friends and colleagues across the company in wishing him well during this challenging time,” Bob Iger, the Disney chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “I respect his candor and support his decision to focus on his health and his family.”
Skipper will be replaced on an interim basis by George Bodenheimer, who served as ESPN’s president from 1998 to 2011 and as the network’s executive chairman until May 2014. Bodenheimer will serve as acting chairman for 90 days, ESPN said in a statement, and will help Iger identify a permanent replacement.
“I’ve stayed in close contact with John, and I believe in the direction he’s taking ESPN,” Bodenheimer said in a statement. “He’s assembled an outstanding leadership team — many of whom I know very well — and I am extremely confident we will work together effectively to move ESPN forward during this transition.”
Skipper’s surprising announcement caps a year of seismic change in the executive suites of some of the country’s biggest media properties, including one of ESPN’s chief competitors. In July, Fox Sports dismissed Jamie Horowitz, who was president of Fox Sports National Networks and in charge of Fox Sports 1’s television programming and the network’s digital operations, in the wake of a sexual harassment investigation.
At ESPN, Skipper played a critical role in growing the company into a ubiquitous brand, in many ways more powerful and influential than the teams and leagues it covers. Despite revenue concerns and subscription losses, Skipper committed the network to billions of dollars in rights fees, including long-term agreements with Major League Baseball, the NBA, the WNBA, the College Football Playoff and several major college conferences, among others.
“We think those rights are the greatest assets we have, which allows us to navigate any environment,” Skipper explained at a 2016 media conference. “We are going to be able to use those rights to continue to launch new businesses, create new platforms, new content and continue to grow.”
His philosophy and the network’s reluctance to dive head-first into the digital space with an over-the-top offering made it ripe for criticism in recent years. All cable networks have been dealing with shrinking subscription numbers, as viewing habits change and consumers increasingly eschew traditional cable packages. But ESPN has been hit especially hard, losing more than 13 million subscribers from its peak of 100.13 million households in 2011. The lost revenue, coupled with steadily escalating sports-rights fees, has forced the network to lay off more than 500 employees over the past two years.
“I think ESPN has struggled with its future for several years now,” said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with BTIG Research, who has been a frequent critic of the network. “‘SportsCenter’ has really lost its way, and ESPN has suffered meaningful ratings declines as it faces an increasingly fragmented world of sports, news and information. The timing of this is particularly interesting given the fact that Disney just landed the largest acquisition in its history last week, much of it tied to sports.”
Employees at the Bristol, Conn.-based company were surprised by Monday’s news, and there had been no public hints that change was afoot. Just last week Skipper appeared at a conference in New York, discussing the network’s future and detailing some of the plans for ESPN Plus, an over-the-top service that’s launching soon and aims to reach consumers who don’t necessarily have a traditional cable subscription. ESPN also is poised to benefit from Disney’s deal last week to acquire a massive package of 21st Century Fox assets, which included Fox Sports Regional Networks, a collection of cable channels that are broadcast to local subscribers across the country.
Jackson says the acquisition, especially, is a “definite shot in the arm” for the company, and ultimately could impact ESPN’s future and stir investors more than Monday’s news.
The company made plenty of headlines over the past year. Just last week, Skipper hosted nearly 500 reporters, anchors and on-air analysts to review the company social media policy, discouraging employees from engaging in political discussions. Also last week, the Boston Globe reported that a former female employee filed a sexual harassment and retaliation complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities this summer, saying a “SportsCenter” anchor sent her unsolicited shirtless photographs of himself and called her “dollface” and “#dreamgirl” in text messages.
Skipper, who turns 62 on Tuesday, joined ESPN after stints at Rolling Stone and US, which is now called Us Weekly. He started at ESPN in 1997 as senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine and was elevated to company president on Jan. 1, 2012.
In the 2011 ESPN oral history “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” Jann Wenner, the longtime Rolling Stone publisher, described Skipper as a well-liked executive, adept at both work and play. “He was fun to be with, he would sometimes smoke pot with me, and he’s got that wry sense of humor, and that devotion to music,” Wenner said.
One ESPN official who had spoken with Skipper since the resignation became public said he wasn’t sure whether Skipper planned to seek formal treatment and enter a rehabilitation facility.
“This is a guy who’s resolute, more aware of where he is and where he wants to go and confident as much as he’s scared. I’m encouraged,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about a company matter.
Skipper was well-liked across the Bristol campus, particularly in the news-gathering division. His fingerprints are all over the network’s programming and products. He helped launch ESPN The Magazine and had an early hand in growing ESPN.com. He oversaw the now-shuttered Grantland site, the Undefeated, espnW, the popular “30 for 30” documentary series and the acquisition of the political vertical FiveThirtyEight.