SBJ/December 5-11, 2011/Media

Will Skipper’s personality change the tone out of Bristol?

John Ourand
John Skipper likes live sports.

As ESPN’s top content executive for the past 12 years, Skipper showed a willingness to spend handsomely for some rights, including the NFL and various college conferences, for example. He also allowed ESPN to be outbid on other sports rights, including the NHL, Olympics and World Cup.

Don’t expect Skipper to change that strategy when he takes over next month as ESPN’s sixth president since its 1979 launch.

John Skipper, unlike George Bodenheimer, is always ready with a quip and a quote.
Photo by: GORT PRODUCTIONS
That’s not to say there aren’t big decisions to make. The biggest one is whom Skipper picks as his replacement. Skipper’s ultimate choice may tell us more about what type of CEO Skipper will be than anything else.

ESPN insiders insist that Skipper’s move will not lead to significant changes. Executives throughout the sports world expect their dealings with ESPN to remain basically the same. Considering the growth ESPN has experienced during outgoing President George Bodenheimer’s tenure, it would be silly to make significant changes in how ESPN approaches the business.

It’s clear that Bodenheimer and Skipper share the same business principles. But their personalities are so different, it has to mean that a different tone will be coming out of Bristol, doesn’t it?

In nearly two decades of covering ESPN, I can’t recall a single “bulletin board” quote from Bodenheimer — even at the height of ESPN’s most public battles with cable operators. Skipper is different, always ready with a quip and a quote.

Jim Miller, best-selling author of the definitive ESPN book, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” says that he expects the tone coming out of Bristol to change eventually, but he doesn’t expect any change to occur until after Skipper names his replacement as the head of content at the network.

“One of the most important decisions will be who Skipper puts in as his No. 2,” Miller said. “One of the most important decisions is how he organizes the company.”

Miller, who spent nearly three years virtually embedded with ESPN to research his book, sees three internal candidates as possibilities to replace Skipper: John Wildhack, executive vice president of programming acquisitions and strategy; Norby Williamson, executive vice president of production; and Rob King, senior vice president of editorial, digital and print media.

The uncertainty surrounding Skipper’s choice prompted me to recall a piece written by New York Times columnist David Brooks a couple of years ago. Brooks wrote about a study that identified the common traits exhibited by the most successful CEOs. The study, called “Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter,” found that executives with good people skills don’t always make the best CEOs. Conversely, the study found that boring executives who focused on balance sheets generally were more successful.

Brooks wrote: “In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as CEOs. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive …

“The CEOs that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless and a bit unidimensional. They are often not the most exciting people to be around.”

Bodenheimer appears to have many of the characteristics that make up a successful CEO, by that measure. His calm-and-steady stewardship of ESPN saw amazing growth. With his outgoing personality, Skipper filled a role that seemed to perfectly complement Bodenheimer.

My question is whether Skipper, as president, will adopt Bodenheimer’s calm-and-steady approach. Or, will he look to his new head of programming and production to fit that role?

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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