ESPN President John Skipper is one of the most powerful people in not just sports television, but sports and television. Skipper's reign at ESPN comes at a pivotal time for the company as the network and cable landscapes shift, sports rights continue to soar in value, and competition is greatly increasing with NBC and Fox launching their own 24/7 sports networks.
This week Skipper opened up about several topics in a Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter, and while it might be little more than a rundown of internal talking points from Bristol, Skipper is still a relatively interesting and revealing quote for a top executive. In the THR interview, he opens up about a number of topics that have made waves in recent months.
One of the central criticisms of ESPN is their lack of hockey coverage and the first quote from Skipper that leaps off the screen is his "regret" that ESPN didn't win back NHL rights from NBC a couple years ago:
"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 [which will go to Fox in 2018]. It's not even a question of who you lose it to. I mean, one thing we've been fortunate in is that while we've aggregated this huge portfolio of rights, the rest of what we don't have has tended to get spread around. When we lost the World Cup, it went to Fox. Hockey is at NBC. CBS and Turner kept the NCAA men's basketball tournament. That's another one that I regret, of course. Basketball is a sport I played as a kid. I grew up in North Carolina [and went to the University of North Carolina as an undergrad], so bringing the men's tournament here would have been great. 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."
In addition to hockey, the ESPN President also wishes he hadn't lost the World Cup and had the NCAA Tournament and Olympics. Those are basically the only sporting events on Planet Earth ESPN doesn't have television rights to, so Skipper is basically saying he wants to televise everything. Hockey fans shouldn't get too excited at that Skipper quote and at this point, they should be happy without ESPN anyways. (After all, for every executive that offers a peace pipe to the NHL there's another that says it's a niche sport.)
Skipper should want to televise everything under the sun. The brilliance of Skipper's ESPN is locking up live sports rights and seeing the increasing value in televising all the games and live events you can. That's where the highest ratings and value are and in spite of how frustrating ESPN's studio programming can be, their game production and coverage is mostly top notch. As long as ESPN has the majority of games, they'll remain the de facto choice for fans across America.
And what about all those layoffs again in Bristol? Again, there seems to be plenty of mixed signals. On one hand, ESPN had to tighten its belt and layoff veteran employees like Howie Schwab. On the other hand, the company will be hiring and pouring billions into new studios, infrastructure, and sports rights:
"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."
One person whose job is safe (for now) is Bill Simmons. When asked about his highest profile employee, Skipper also had bulletin board material that's sure to raise a few eyebrows, especially in regards to his bombastic Twitter account:
"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."
Translation: Skipper only wishes he could say to Simmons what Brian Cashman said to A-Rod.
If you're interested in the business side of ESPN and sports media, the entire interview is certainly worth checking out, especially the points about a possible sports rights bubble (they'll keep going up as long as people are willing to pay), the difference between broadcast and cable (it's disappearing), Fox Sports 1's challenge (ESPN is respectful but far from scared of their rivals) and a la carte cable pricing (which Skipper sees as a red herring). With all these variables in play, it'll be very interesting to see how John Skipper leads ESPN through this decade with these issues altering the sports landscape.