USA Today Sports

ESPN's new president reportedly wants to shift away from politics

Alex Reimer
May 24, 2018 - 1:46 pm

ESPN’s new president James Pitaro has several problematic areas to address. One of them reportedly is his desire to shift the network’s programming away from politics and back to news and highlights. 

The Wall Street Journal’s Shalini Ramachandran wrote an extensive feature story on ESPN’s struggles over the last few years. It’s an enlightening read that looks at the company’s issues from a macro perspective, highlighting its loss in subscribers and subsequent rising costs. Largely due to cord-cutting, which Ramachandran reports ESPN’s forecasters originally dismissed, the network has lost 16 million subscribers in six years. At the same time, its costs have skyrocketed, especially in regards to live sports rights. ESPN’s four biggest, long-term rights deals now cost $4.7 billion, which is more than double what the company paid in 2013. 

In addition, ex-president John Skipper showered hosts and commentators with vast salaries, in an effort to suppress upstart competitors FS1 and NBC Sports Network. 

The combination of lost subscribers and soaring costs is a formula for disaster. ESPN’s profit declined in the fiscal year that ended in September 2017, according to the story, and has continued to spiral downward overt the next two quarters. With cable providers increasingly offering subscribers packages that don’t include ESPN, which is the most expensive cable channel available, it looks like the network will only lose more customers in the foreseeable future.

ESPN has laid off more than 600 employees over the last several years, many of whom were well known anchors and reporters

The WorldWide Leader’s declining revenue has frayed its relationship with majority-owner Walt Disney Co. Skipper also reportedly clashed with Disney president Bob Iger, who increasingly grew frustrated with the network’s boss. Sources say Skipper missed a corporate plane ride with Iger after the ESPY Awards in 2012, roiling the executive. Disney went as far as to investigate Skipper’s whereabouts that evening. 

Skipper suddenly resigned from his position in December, citing substance abuse. He said earlier this year someone from whom he had purchased cocaine had attempted to blackmail him.

Throughout his tenure as ESPN president, Skipper prioritized installing minority voices into prominent on-air positions. Many of these commentators, including Jemele Hill, Dan Le Batard and Bomani Jones, routinely share left-leaning views on sports and social issues. The WSJ reports ESPN has been facing internal criticism over its perceived leftward swing for years, long before it started taking hits from the White House and right-wing blogosphere. On one occasion, revered anchor Bob Ley approached Skipper to express concern about a lack of political balance within the company, the story says. 

Skipper reportedly became cognizant of these concerns in his final months as president, which led him to admonish Hill in a closed-door meeting after she had called President Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter. 

“If I punish you, I’d open us up to protests and come off as racist. If I do nothing, that will fuel a narrative among conservatives—and a faction within ESPN—that the network had become too liberal,” Skipper reportedly conveyed to Hill in their sit-down. She was suspended weeks later when she urged a boycott of the Cowboys’ sponsors after owner Jerry Jones had said all of his players must stand for the national anthem.

In recent months, Pitaro has reportedly “encouraged” shows to focus on straight sports. Hill left the 6:00 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter” in February and her co-anchor, Michael Smith, left the show shortly thereafter. 

ESPN’s business problems are centered around the dire reality of cable TV in the cord-cutting era. But it’s apparent Pitaro thinks the network’s perceived liberal agenda doesn’t help matters.

Given the increasing intersection of sports and politics, ESPN may be forced to downplay certain provocative stories in order to achieve that goal.