SBD/December 18, 2017/People and Pop Culture

John Skipper Unexpectedly Resigns As ESPN President, Cites Substance Addiction

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JOHN SKIPPER abruptly resigned as ESPN President this morning, a move that sent shock waves through the sports world. Skipper, who cited a substance addiction problem for his decision, has been ESPN’s president since ’12. He will be replaced on an interim basis by GEORGE BODENHEIMER, who previously served as President from ’98-’11. Disney Chair & CEO BOB IGER said via a prepared statement that Bodenheimer has committed to serve as “acting chair of ESPN for the next 90 days to provide interim leadership, help me identify and secure John’s successor, and ensure a smooth transition.” Bodenheimer said, “I've stayed in close contact with John, and I believe in the direction he's taking ESPN. 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 joined ESPN in ’97 and oversaw a period of wild growth for ESPN. Recently, though, he has seen that growth slow to a crawl with a dropping pay-TV subscriber base combined with higher rights fees. Over the past several months, ESPN has hit back on several rumors that have circulated about Skipper’s future. Just last month, at least two publications, including SBJ/SBD, had contacted ESPN PR about rumors that Skipper would be stepping down or be replaced. At the time, ESPN PR called those rumors unfounded -- Skipper quietly had signed a three-year extension, after all -- and none of the publications wrote a story.

SURPRISING REASON FOR DEPARTURE: None of the rumors that circulated mentioned anything about a substance abuse problem, which was the reason Skipper gave this morning for stepping down. “I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction,” Skipper said via a quote provided by ESPN PR. “I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem. I have disclosed that decision to the company, and we mutually agreed that it was appropriate that I resign. I will always appreciate the human understanding and warmth that Bob displayed here and always. I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down.” Skipper was known for his intellect and Southern-folksy style. He had a dramatically different approach than Bodenheimer, becoming much more aggressive publicly to combat various criticisms. Skipper has strong internal support throughout ESPN, but some longtime Bristol employees privately chafed at the fact that he was less inclusive than Bodenheimer and much more insular in his decision making. Over the past 12 months, Skipper admitted to mishandling certain internal and external situations, whether it was his handling of various Twitter controversies or even the failed deal with Barstool Sports. Skipper’s shocking resignation comes just five days after an all-staff meeting held in a gymnasium on the Bristol campus -- a meeting where he highlighted ESPN’s business and encouraged staffers to embrace the company’s brand.

WHO MIGHT FILL THE ROLE: Throughout its history, ESPN always has turned inwards to find its next president. While Skipper has had several internal candidates reporting to him, the front runner clearly appears to be Exec VP/Affiliate Sales & Marketing JUSTIN CONNOLLY. He was the exec who oversaw ESPN’s Altice affiliate deal that widely has been painted as a win for ESPN. Connolly is well regarded within the company and has had various positions, from launching SEC Network to running the affiliate department. Other Disney names that have been bandied about in the parlor game of guessing who ultimately would replace Skipper include Disney Senior Exec VP/Chief Strategy Officer KEVIN MAYER and Chair of Disney Consumer Products JIMMY PITARO. There is also a roster of former ESPN execs who could be contacted about taking over Skipper’s post, including F1 Commercial Chief SEAN BRATCHES, who competed with Skipper for the ESPN presidency back in ’11. Other former ESPNers who could be considered include NBC Sports Regional Networks President DAVID PRESCHLACK, CBS Sports President DAVID BERSON and WME-IMG co-President MARK SHAPIRO. Other potential candidates could be Exec VP & CFO CHRISTINE DRIESSEN or Facebook COO SHERYL SANDBERG, who at one point had been rumored to be a potential replacement for Iger when he steps down at Disney.

IMPORTANT YEAR COMING UP: Next year is shaping up as an important one for ESPN, as it plans to launch its direct-to-consumer offering and roll out more mobile bells and whistles. By Iger’s statement, he hopes to have a new leader in Bristol by March.

SBJ/SBD’s Abe Madkour and John Ourand discuss the surprising resignation of ESPN President John Skipper, what it means and who could potentially be named as a successor.

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