UFC president Dana White recently sat down with Grant Cardone to talk about the state of the MMA world and shared a pretty matter-of-fact story about how he credits the cocaine scandal that ended John Skipper’s tenure at ESPN with how UFC was able to land its five-year, $1.5 billion broadcast deal with the network. While this information isn’t really all that new, it is certainly a more colorful story when White tells it.
Dana White tells John Skipper story.pic.twitter.com/HRm656D0jA
— Jed I. Goodman © (@jedigoodman) December 21, 2022
“I’ll tell you a crazy story,” White, said during his one-hour interview with Cardone. “You ever hear of John Skipper? John Skipper ran ESPN. Now, I think he runs DAZN. Runs ESPN, beloved, looks like the squarest dude on the planet. Older guy. Hates UFC. Hates it. Hates UFC. Big soccer guy. For whatever reason, people like different things. And I’m not shitting on John Skipper. But this is a fact, this happened and this is a true story.
“John Skipper, beloved at ESPN, ESPN’s at the top of their game. These guys are killing it in revenue, they’re getting $5 per subscriber when cable was the biggest it’s ever been. So, our FOX deal is up and we’re probably not gonna do another deal with FOX. They’re selling off cable networks and restructuring. So they’re not the same company when we signed with them. And John Skipper’s never, ever gonna take the UFC. So, we’re in a real tough place.
“John Skipper’s cocaine dealer is gonna rat him out. So he has to tell Disney ‘My cocaine dealer is gonna go public’ or whatever, so he has to step down from ESPN, right at the time we’re trying to make a new TV deal. Who do they make president? Jimmy Pitaro, who ran Yahoo! Sports for years. I’ve known him a long time. He’s a great dude, and he loves the UFC. Now you got him, you got a guy named Kevin Mayer, who is really closed to [Endeavor CEO] Ari [Emanuel], and we ended up doing the ESPN deal when our deal was up.”
“So you want to talk about timing,” White finished.
The story itself isn’t shocking for those who have been following the sports media world for some time. Skipper is on the record discussing the fallout from the scandal, which caused him to leave ESPN.
“They threatened me, and I understood immediately that threat put me and my family at risk, and this exposure would put my professional life at risk as well. I foreclosed that possibility by disclosing the details to my family, and then when I discussed it with Bob, he and I agreed that I had placed the company in an untenable position and as a result, I should resign,” said Skipper in 2018, just months after he stepped down from the role he had held since 2012.
Skipper eventually re-entered the sports media game as the head of DAZN before leaving to form Meadowlark Media with Dan Le Batard. He also had no shortage of opinions on the world of sports media and what ESPN has done or not done since he left.
As for the validity of White’s story, it certainly checks out. Though, as AA’s Andrew Bucholtz wrote in 2018, there were obviously more pieces to the puzzle in order to make the deal happen.
As per Ourand, new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro (who took over in early March, following John Skipper’s abrupt December resignation) was on board with the UFC in a way Skipper wasn’t, but it also wound up being key that some areas Skipper used to control (in particular, ESPN+) now report to Disney exec Kevin Mayer (chairman of international and direct-to-consumer products), and that Mayer and Disney CEO Bob Iger were interested in the UFC rights.
And here’s how Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand explained the way that the deal came together.
During Skipper’s reign as president, ESPN showed little interest in a UFC deal. Skipper wasn’t a fan of the sport and didn’t believe it fit into ESPN’s schedule.
Watching Pitaro’s reactions that morning, Shapiro — for the first time — truly believed that a deal with ESPN could be possible.
Shapiro, though, didn’t realize that Pitaro wasn’t the one calling the shots, at least not when it came to ESPN+, the streaming service where ESPN envisioned putting most of the UFC fights. Instead, those decisions would run through Burbank and Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international groups.
Pitaro may have replaced Skipper as ESPN’s president, but he inherited fewer areas of responsibilities. The ESPN+ streaming service that had reported to Skipper was shifted to report to Mayer, along with ESPN’s ad sales group.
Any UFC deal would need Pitaro’s buy-in, of course, but Mayer would run point.
The point is that a UFC/ESPN deal might have still happened under Skipper eventually because it made a lot of business sense, regardless of his personal opinion. But it certainly became way more likely, and ESPN became way more aggressive, once Skipper was out and Pitaro and Mayer were in charge.