ESPN's Skipper Gave No Hint Of Impending Resignation Leading Up To Announcement
In the days -- hours, actually -- leading up to his shocking resignation announcement Monday morning, former ESPN President John Skipper gave no hint that he was about to step away from the most powerful position in sports media. He acted and spoke like an exec who was prepared to remain ESPN’s president for the rest of the three-year contract that he had signed recently, according to interviews with numerous people who met with him last week. Skipper, who cited a substance abuse addiction as his reason for quitting, fielded calls and made business decisions as late as Sunday -- the same day that an extremely small circle of Disney and ESPN staffers were made aware of his decision. To everyone who encountered Skipper through the weekend, he was fully engaged. There was no sense that anything was amiss. The fact that Skipper was so engaged last week has many questioning what happened to cause an exec who was conducting business-as-usual over the weekend to just give up. "I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction. I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem,” Skipper said in a statement released by ESPN PR on Monday. In the statement, Skipper said that he “mutually agreed” with Disney Chair & CEO Bob Iger that he should step down. Two days after Skipper’s announcement, many ESPN staffers remain in a state of shock. None of the sources contacted for this story -- more than a dozen -- suspected that Skipper might step down at any time, much less this week. In fact, none had any idea that he was struggling with an addiction. While many of the sources spoke of having drinks with Skipper on occasion, none of those sources knowingly had seen him under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In fact, Skipper had a reputation at ESPN as an exec who did not like to attend industry parties. He frequently shied away from them.
KEEPING UP A VISIBLE PRESENCE: During the week before his resignation, Skipper was more visible than he had been in months, the beginning part of an ESPN PR push to make Skipper more public in defending the company and changing a negative narrative that has engulfed the net for much of the year. Everyone who met with Skipper last week described him as upbeat and driven. He had several conversations about the future and was focused on tasks that needed to be completed. ESPN had gone through a year of awful press clippings. Skipper oversaw a falling subscriber base combined with rising rights fees. ESPN laid off hundreds of employees, and suspended others for social media missteps. The net devoted to sports got caught in the political crosshairs, painted as a liberal bastion, so much so that even President Trump took public swipes at it. But there was a strong sense of a shift in Bristol last week, as ESPN staffers felt like momentum finally was starting to swing. Last Wednesday’s all-talent meeting felt like a pep rally, followed by the announcement of the massive Fox deal that showed Disney’s commitment to ESPN and sports programming. ESPN’s exec team, including Skipper, received end-of-the-year bonuses on Thursday. But all that came to a crashing halt Monday morning, and the move has ESPN staffers and many in the sports business reeling and confused.
TUESDAY, DEC. 12: Skipper gave the keynote address at the Sports Video Group 2017 Summit in N.Y., during which time he hyped ESPN's planned direct-to-consumer service, gave vocal support to ESPN’s planned morning show and defended ESPN’s NBA deal. “It’s a ridiculous notion that we misunderstood the market for the NBA,” he said on stage. That night, Skipper was in the audience as ESPN legends Chris Berman and John Walsh were inducted into the SVG HOF.
WEDNESDAY, DEC. 13: Skipper gave a motivational speech at ESPN’s all-talent meeting in Bristol -- a meeting that included “SportsCenter” anchors and former athletes that appear on ESPN like Scottie Pippen, Chris Evert and Randy Moss. Skipper’s main message to the talent was that ESPN’s brand is strong and business is good, despite much of the negative press it has had over the past year. “We're all in this together,” he said. Skipper seemed energized by the meeting and was one of the last people to leave a party following the two-hour event. There was no alcohol.
THURSDAY, DEC. 14: Skipper was back in N.Y. to address the MLS BOD meeting. Sources said Skipper was upbeat, offering a spirited view of the future for both MLS and ESPN. “We’re behind you,” Skipper said, according to sources. “Things are positive, and we feel like we’re moving in the right direction.” Thursday also was the day that Disney’s $52.4B acquisition of Fox assets was announced formally.
FRIDAY, DEC. 15: Skipper spent the day in N.Y. going in and out of meetings and was scheduled to go to Philadelphia for the Thunder-76ers game as a guest of 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil. Skipper did not go to the game, a decision that did not appear unusual -- Skipper canceled plans at the last minute all the time, sources said. It is not known what Skipper did on Friday night instead of the game -- a game that was important to the net, as it devoted much of its programming that day to the 76ers, something it called “Philadelphia All Access.”
MONDAY, DEC. 18: Skipper spent the morning calling various sports business execs, including some of his direct reports, to let them know that he had decided to resign. The calls lasted for a couple of minutes, and everyone expressed shock. Shortly after 11:00am ET, the news was announced publicly.
TUESDAY, DEC. 19: Former ESPN President George Bodenheimer, who agreed to serve as interim president for 90 days, was on ESPN’s Bristol campus, trying to project a feeling of calm. He held a staff meeting with Skipper’s former staffers, imploring them to conduct business as usual and focus on the future. Bodenheimer acknowledged the tumultuous year, but said staffers should focus on the positives, including the launch of a direct-to-consumer product early next year and a potentially precedent-setting affiliate deal with Altice that was cut a few months ago.