Coverage: ESPN head Skipper resigns suddenly
ESPN President John Skipper, one of the most powerful figures in sports and media, stunned employees Monday with his sudden resignation, capping the most tumultuous year in the history of the network, a Walt Disney Co. subsidiary.
Skipper told employees in an email that he has struggled with a substance addiction for many years and was stepping down from his posts as ESPN president and co-chairman of the Disney Media Networks.
“I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem. . . . I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down,” Skipper wrote.
Skipper has been the network’s guiding force in an unpredictable period, helping it secure television rights to some of the sporting world’s biggest franchises and charged with steadying the ship amid changing viewership habits that resulted in a dramatic drop in subscription numbers in recent years.
Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated reported that Skipper’s departure comes after layoffs at ESPN:
Skipper called a handful of senior management people this morning to tell them of his decision before going public, sources said. The timing of the resignation will understandably be questioned based on news of the last couple of months. In countless other instances, employees citing addiction issues have taken leaves of absences, rather than take the permanent step of resignation.
Skepticism is fair. Skipper signed a three-year contract extension with ESPN just last month. But more than that ESPN had recently shifted its external strategy to make Skipper more front and center to push its brand message after an annus horribilis for ESPN employees. Skipper announced in November that approximately 150 staffers had lost their jobs in positions across the company including producers, executives and digital and technology staffers. That followed the layoffs of roughly 100 front-facing staffers last April, including many well-known names in sports journalism. The network has dealt with controversy after controversy — some of it self-inflicted, some of it out of its control. In recent weeks, the company had made clear that Skipper was going to be the point person in an attempt to change the narrative. Skipper has asked for privacy. But, as a captain of media, he likely knows as well as anyone that this announcement — and its curious timing — will spur additional reporting and follow-up.
Lucas Shaw and Eben Novy-Williams of Bloomberg News reported that ESPN is looking at two internal candidates:
Programming boss Connor Schell and distribution chief Justin Connolly are likely internal candidates, as is acting Chairman George Bodenheimer, said the person, who asked not to be identified because process is only just starting. An outside candidate is also possible, the person said. Disney has outlined a 90-day timetable for finding a replacement.
Skipper shocked the sports and entertainment world Monday with his sudden resignation and admission of an addiction problem. He’s led ESPN, Disney’s groundbreaking sports operation, since 2012 and has been with the network for 20 years. Once a profit machine, ESPN has been unable to stem the loss of subscribers and advertising to new media like Netflix, Facebook and YouTube.
At the same time, the cost of sports rights has spiked, with the network facing new competition for sports rights from technology giants Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc. Ad sales and profit have slumped at ESPN for the first time in years.