Bob Iger is set to run ESPN parent Disney through July 2019. Iger, the company’s current CEO who’s filled that role since 2005, was first set to step down in 2016, then 2018, but last year’s departure of COO and presumptive Iger successor Thomas Staggs (after the board didn’t seem thrilled with the idea of him taking over) made a further extension for Iger seem logical. Iger expressed his willingness to stay on longer in a February conference call, and now the board has taken him up on that, giving him a one-year extension through July 2019. That has several notable potential implications for ESPN, particularly in big changes we’re not likely to see.
From the outside, at least, it seems like Iger is quite satisfied with ESPN’s leadership and with the network’s path on most fronts. Specifically, he’s regularly spoken about how important it is for ESPN to be in “skinny bundles” (including streaming options from Sling, DirecTV and more) and about ESPN’s forthcoming over-the-top offering. Those views wouldn’t necessarily be shared by a different CEO; Staggs, for example, spoke much more about the importance of the traditional multi-channel bundle, so a Disney CEO with his views might focus more on that side, or conversely, another Disney CEO might want ESPN to quickly go into over-the-top in a larger way (standalone access to all ESPN content, including TV channels) rather than starting with the ESPN3-focused light approach Iger seems to be promoting.
Beyond that, Iger has staunchly defended ESPN from analysts’ criticisms, even though lost ESPN subscribers, mounting rights fees and lower revenues have repeatedly been cited as a drain on Disney’s stock price. That’s not to say Iger is necessarily wrong; cord-cutting stretches far beyond ESPN, and the steps the network has been taking to get into skinny bundles, develop an over-the-top offering, and find ways to maximize the ratings they can get may well be the best ones. But given the issues ESPN is facing and the impact they’re having on the larger company, a different Disney CEO may be more interested in shifting at least part of the network’s direction, or maybe even its leadership. There’s still going to be a different CEO in 2019, and that may spell changes for ESPN, but the Iger extension suggests they may have another year under the current direction.
Another important element of Iger’s extended tenure is what it may mean for ESPN and politics. Iger is reportedly a long-time Democrat, but is serving on President Donald Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum council of CEOs. He defended that to Disney shareholders earlier this month, saying “I think there is an opportunity for me to express views that I think … are of value to the company and its shareholders” and saying he would take positions “adversarial to the view of the administration” on some issues, including immigration. But the more critical part for ESPN is that Iger has defended the network against critics who say it’s politically biased, saying those claims are “just a complete exaggeration.” So, Iger doesn’t seem to want major change there. Another CEO might think differently.
Of course, Iger presumably isn’t heavily involved in ESPN’s day-to-day operations. He has a massive company to run, including other media networks (ABC, A+E Networks, Disney Channel), Disney’s parks around the globe, Walt Disney Studios and Disney consumer products and interactive media; he’s certainly not making decisions on what airs on a particular SportsCenter, and he probably isn’t even too concerned with specific ESPN programming moves (such as different editions of SportsCenter, including Scott Van Pelt’s show and the new Jemele Hill-Michael Smith SC6). But ESPN president John Skipper reports directly to Iger (as one of the co-chairs of the Disney Media Networks division), and Iger is certainly involved in both having Skipper continue to lead ESPN and overseeing the directions he wants to take ESPN in. Iger may be even more involved with ESPN than he with in most parts of Disney’s assets, given both ESPN’s size and the way ESPN issues are regularly raised on Disney earnings calls.
Another area where Iger’s leadership is important is in investments. You can bet he was heavily involved in the decision to buy a stake in BAMTech for over $1 billion (which is a key part of ESPN’s streaming/over-the-top strategy), as well as decisions like investing $200 million more in Vice. His comments about ESPN and his investment decisions suggests he sees a strong future for media outlets, or at least for particular media outlets and particular means of content delivery (which may be also why Disney has reportedly looked into buying Twitter). That doesn’t mean Iger values all content equally (the recent decision to de-emphasize carriage for ESPN’s smaller networks was also on his watch), but he does seem to value media content. That would seem to make it less likely that the analyst-floated idea of Disney selling off or spinning off ESPN would happen on Iger’s watch.
Overall, the Iger extension would seem to suggest that things will continue along their current lines at ESPN through at least the new end of his term in mid-2019. That isn’t a certainty; extremely poor ESPN results might lead to him making changes, or he might alter course on some fronts (perhaps the OTT launch, or the political side) if things don’t go as planned. And ESPN will need to start preparing for a new CEO after Iger leaves, especially once a top candidate there is identified. But Iger’s extension does make it seem less likely there will be significant changes to ESPN, its leadership, or its future strategies by 2019.