Executives predict smooth ESPN transition
At first glance, the differences between George Bodenheimer and John Skipper, the outgoing and incoming ESPN presidents, couldn’t be starker.
Bodenheimer is a measured, buttoned-down executive from Connecticut. Skipper gives off a good-ol’-boy persona from North Carolina.
Bodenheimer has a private personality and seems more comfortable in small groups. Skipper is much more outgoing and revels in a crowd.
|John Skipper will try to maintain as much continuity as possible at ESPN, sources say.
Despite these differences, executives from inside and outside ESPN last week said they did not expect the company to change its approach to sports business.
The reason? Bodenheimer and Skipper have many more similarities than differences.
“The best part about this move is that one of the great guys in the business, George Bodenheimer, is transitioning to another one of the great guys in the business, John Skipper,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB’s executive vice president of business, who has forged deep relationships with both executives during his 20-year MLB career.
That sentiment was repeated throughout sports last week, as executives discussed the unexpected move that made Skipper ESPN’s sixth president since its 1979 launch.
The news that Bodenheimer, who has been with ESPN for nearly 31 years, was stepping away from day-to-day operations came as a shock to many in the sports business, who didn’t expect the move to happen so quickly.
But in March, Bodenheimer told his boss, Disney President and CEO Bob Iger, that he would not be seeking to renew his contract, which ends Dec. 31. Bodenheimer told Iger that it was time for him to move on.
“I felt it in my gut and my heart that the time had come,” Bodenheimer said. “You just know it when you get there.”
This summer, after talking to Bodenheimer, one industry executive remarked that the ESPN executive sounded more serious as he talked about his next plans.
“He really sounded like he wanted to move on to the next phase of his life,” the source said.
Soon after telling Iger of his plans in March, the two put together a search of internal candidates that targeted ESPN’s top executives. It’s not known how many executives interviewed to replace Bodenheimer, but everyone was from ESPN.
“Our search was internal,” Bodenheimer said.
It didn’t surprise former ESPN President Steve Bornstein, now the NFL’s executive vice president of media, that Bodenheimer looked from within ESPN to find his replacement.
“George has positioned ESPN extremely well,” Bornstein said. “Knowing John as well as I do, I am confident he will continue to innovate and grow the company.”
Executives both inside and outside of ESPN expect to see few changes in ESPN’s management ranks.
An ESPN source said that Skipper believes ESPN has a good team of executives in place and is going to try to maintain as much continuity as possible. ESPN sources also say Skipper has no timetable for finding his replacement overseeing the content division. John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming acquisitions and strategy, and Norby Williamson, executive vice president of production, are logical replacements, though one ESPN source said Skipper is known to be his own man and could surprise people with his pick. Skipper, in deference to Bodenheimer, declined interview requests last week.
While industry executives seemed genuinely remorseful that Bodenheimer was leaving, they were relieved that Skipper was replacing him.
“It gives us great comfort to know that ESPN will continue to have such a strong advocate for the NFL in place,” said NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp. “Above all, John’s a good and honest person.”
NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver sounded an identical theme.
“It’s a testament to George that he has lined up and helped mentor a person as talented as John,” he said.
Executives also were quick to cite Skipper’s sports interests as an example of serving as an advocate for their products. Silver had his tongue firmly in cheek as he said, “The NBA couldn’t have asked for a better partner than John, who swears that basketball is his favorite sport.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted Skipper’s well-known reputation as an avid soccer follower, as well, and hopes Skipper’s new role will be a boon for the sport.
“John is a dyed-in-the-wool soccer guy,” Garber said. “I don’t know too many TV executives who are so closely aligned to a particular sport.”
Skipper’s business acumen also earned him praise. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott cited his negotiations with Skipper for the Pac-12’s media rights this summer and described him as a strategic, creative dealmaker. “He does not need to win every point in a negotiation,” Scott said. “He believes in give-and-take and win-win solutions.”
But the overall sentiment echoed throughout conversations last week is that ESPN will continue to be led by capable executives.
“I’m a big fan of both George and John, not only for what they’ve built but for the way they conduct their business with class and intelligence,” said NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins. “ESPN will continue to be in very capable, talented hands.”
Staff writer Michael Smith contributed to this report.
Media moves and movers
A number of personnel changes have taken place in sports media this year. The following are some of the more high-profile moves:
Former position: ESPN, EVP, program planning and strategy
New position: CBS, executive vice president; CBS College Sports Network, president
Former positions: ESPN/ABC Sports, president; Disney Media Networks, co-chairman
New position: ESPN/ABC Sports, executive chairman (effective Jan. 1)
Former position: Versus, president
New position: Not available
Note: Davis left in February after a 2 1/2-year stint and as NBC Sports was restructuring.
Former position: NBC Sports, chairman
New position: NBC Sports, senior adviser
Note: Ebersol resigned in May but recently returned to the sports division as a senior adviser to his successor, Mark Lazarus, on NBC’s NFL and London Olympics coverage.
Former position: HBO Sports, president
New position: NBC Sports/NHL; production assignments
Former position: Showtime Sports, EVP and general manager
New position: HBO Sports, president (effective Jan. 9)
Former company: CSE
New position: NBC Sports, chairman
Note: Lazarus joined NBC Sports under Ebersol but was named NBC Sports chairman after Ebersol’s resignation.
Former position: Versus and Comcast SportsNet, president
New position: NBC Sports Group, president
Former position: CBS, president, news and sports divisions
New position: CBS Sports, chairman
Note: CBS in February announced McManus would step down as president of the news division, a post he had held since 2005, to focus exclusively on sports.
Former position: NBC Sports, president
New position: None
Note: Retired in May.
Former company: DirecTV
New position: Fox Sports Media Group, co-president and co-CEO
Former position: Fox Networks Group, chairman and CEO
New position: Not available