ESPN president John Skipper did a featured one-on-one interview to kick off the 17th annual NeuLion Sports Media & Technology Conference in New York Wednesday, and he pulled no punches when discussing the company’s critics. The general discussion about ESPN recently has involved their increasing rights payouts and decreasing subscriber revenue (leaving them with over $3 billion to make up annually), their parting with big names like Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock, and their September layoffs of up to 350 key personnel, suggesting the Worldwide Leader is facing some hard times, but Skipper said those are “false narratives”:
Despite declining numbers of cable subscribers to ESPN and recent layoffs of approximately 300 employees, Skipper said he “really likes the hand we have,” saying repeatedly the company has been assigned with “false narratives.” “We do not have a narrative problem. We don’t have a narrative of declining usage at ESPN, and we are not retrenching,” Skipper said, citing in part ESPN’s sports industry record digital metrics of more than 94 million people and 10 billion minutes of consumption in September, as well as ESPN’s status as the most-watched U.S. cable channel. “We are adding viewers on other platforms to supplement our performance on TV. What we have is an internal narrative of continued dramatic success.” While Skipper called the recent layoffs “the most difficult week of my tenure,” he bristled sharply at the idea that the departures of personalities such as Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann represent a talent drain for ESPN. Skipper particularly shot back at the suggestion that Simmons did not receive sufficient internal support and promotion for Grantland. “It is completely inaccurate to say that Bill Simmons and Grantland didn’t get enough support,” he said.
Skipper’s shots didn’t end there, either. He went after those who have criticized ESPN for its DeflateGate reporting (including Simmons), saying that criticism is “ridiculous,” endorsed under-siege daily fantasy (a key ESPN advertiser) as “a game of skill,” said the company’s NFL return on investment “is higher than anyone else’s” (which seems highly improbable given what they’re paying for a terrible slate of Monday night games), and added some more pointed criticisms. One of the most interesting was his shot at IAC (which owns everything from Tinder to The Princeton Review) chairman Barry Diller (a key former Fox and USA executive), who said on CNBC earlier this month that ESPN has created a “false economy,” supported by cable subscribers who don’t actually watch the channel. Here’s what Skipper said in response:
“Skipper shot back at IAC Chair Barry Diller, who has accused of ESPN of operating in a “false economy. ‘That is an inaccurate, inappropriate, woefully uninformed narrative, one I would submit is willfully so,’ Skipper said. ‘I would ask that he stop flapping his lips.'”
So, Skipper seems set to publicly defy the current media narrative around ESPN. Whether he has a point or not is a matter of opinion, though. It’s certainly a fact that ESPN has lost subscribers and that they’re paying more for rights than they ever have. The company’s impressive recent digital metrics do play in their favor, though. Just what the situation with ESPN is, and what its future is, appears up in the air, but at the very least, Skipper is publicly pushing back hard against the way others are covering his company. We’ll see what that leads to.