Just before Thanksgiving, Disney extended ESPN president John Skipper through 2021, apparently shoring up the position for the near future. Now, just a month later, Disney finds itself scrambling to replace Skipper, who resigned Monday citing substance abuse issues.
Former ESPN president George Bodenheimer will preside over the network as it searches for its next head honcho, but given all the issues swirling around the company, Disney won’t likely take its time in finding Skipper’s successor.
According to Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw and Eben Novy-Williams, decision-makers at Disney have their eye on two internal candidates: executive vice president of content Connor Schell and executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Justin Connolly.
Schell was promoted last summer to oversee content on ESPN’s television, online, and print platforms. Before that, he was senior vice president and executive producer for ESPN original content, shepherding the “30 for 30” series and bringing ESPN Films its first Oscar, for O.J.: Made in America. Connolly oversees domestic distribution, affiliate marketing and affiliate-related business operations for ESPN networks and other Disney properties. In that role, he is responsible for distribution of ESPN content across TV and digital platforms.
ESPN has a history of promoting from within — Skipper rose from EVP of content, while Bodenheimer famously began his career in the ESPN mailroom and climbed from there — which suggests a high probability that Schell or Connolly will be the choice this time. Still, Disney has the option of looking outside Bristol. Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand called Connolly the “front-runner” but reported that Disney executives Kevin Mayer and Jimmy Pitaro could also make for strong options, along with ESPN alums such as David Preschlack (now at NBC), David Berson (CBS), Mark Shapiro (WWE-IMG), and Sean Bratches (Formula 1).
With the cable industry facing an existential crisis, controversies stinging ESPN left and right, and numerous major rights packages hitting the market early next decade, ESPN’s next president will go a long way toward shaping the company’s future.
Bodenheimer will serve as acting president for 90 days, giving Bob Iger and Disney a three-month window to sort through these candidates and make one of the most important decisions in ESPN history.