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Volume 24 No. 159
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ESPN's Skipper Discusses Sports Rights, Layoffs, Simmons In Q&A

ESPN President John Skipper discussed the value of sports rights, handling Bill Simmons and the company's recent layoffs in a Q&A conducted by Marisa Guthrie of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: Where's the ceiling on sports rights?
Skipper: Ultimately it's a free market, and sports rights end up being sold and valued for what they're worth. ... The value of sports has appreciated because it's the only thing that people have to watch live.

Q: What rights package do you not have that you want?
Skipper: I regret not being able to get hockey back. We made a strong bid for it last time (in 2011). But the NHL felt well served by NBC. So that's kind of something you have to respect, that they wanted to stay with the incumbents. And of course, it was very difficult for me to lose World Cup soccer. ... But I'm generally pretty proud of what we've been able to assemble -- but we weren't able to get the men's basketball tournament, the World Cup, the Olympics, hockey.

Q: Is there a cable-vs.-broadcast divide when it comes to rights?
Skipper: We're going to put the college football championship on cable. Wimbledon is on cable. Next month we'll have the British Open on cable. It doesn't matter much anymore. I would acknowledge there's a small divide in ratings because there still are 10 million to 15 million households that don't get paid television. But they tend to be very light sports viewers.

Q: Grantland editor Bill Simmons has a unique position: He's part of ESPN, but he criticizes the company on Twitter and gets suspended.
Skipper: Bill is a unique talent. There has never been anybody writing about sports who has had more readers than Bill Simmons. Bill creates a lot of great content for us. He is passionate about what he does, and every now and then that passion explodes onto his Twitter account, and we have to figure out how to deal with it. I'm personally very fond of Bill. He's done a lot for our company. It has been about 99.8 percent great.

Q: ESPN recently laid off about 400 people, 5 percent of its U.S. workforce. Will there be more cuts?
Skipper: We are at the end of it. We had not for a long time looked at our organization with an eye toward making sure that our resources, our people, our money was spent against things that make a difference. The world's a little different. There's really 10 distribution deals to do now, and they're long-term, so we consolidated some of our affiliate sales functions. We closed the Denver office; we quit doing 3D. So we eliminated a bunch of jobs. But we are adding people for the SEC Network; we're adding people in digital; we will add people for the new SportsCenter. We are continuing to put more resources in L.A. We're not retrenching (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, 7/19 issue).