At ESPN, Skipper Resigns as President, Citing Substance Addiction

Posted December 18, 2017 3:40 p.m. EST
Updated December 18, 2017 3:42 p.m. EST

In an unexpected announcement bound to reverberate across the sports media landscape, John Skipper, the president of ESPN, announced his resignation Monday, citing a “substance addiction” of “many years.” Skipper, who has been president of the company since 2012, recently signed a contract extension through 2021.

In ESPN’s announcement of the resignation, Skipper, who turns 62 on Tuesday, said he had 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,” he said. Skipper did not specify which substance he has been struggling with.

ESPN, a division of the Walt Disney Co., said George Bodenheimer, a former ESPN president who has also served as its executive chairman, would serve as its acting chairman for 90 days. The company will then presumably name a permanent president.

Skipper had been very visible up until his resignation. Last weekend, he attended the company’s telecasts of the Heisman Trophy ceremony and boxing match between Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux. Last week, he was the keynote speaker at the Sports Video Group Summit and led a meeting at the company’s Bristol, Connecticut, campus for 450 of its most prominent camera-facing talent.

Skipper’s portfolio was poised to grow. Disney recently announced a planned acquisition of 21st Century Fox that includes 22 regional sports networks likely to fold into the ESPN umbrella. Instead, Monday morning Skipper placed calls to his top executives informing them directly of the announcement, while ESPN communications employees placed calls to the sports leagues to let them know what was coming.

Top executives and many of ESPN’s on-air personalities were shocked at Skipper’s resignation, expressing their appreciation for the support he gave their careers. “This person has created everything that exists here at ESPN for us,” Dan Le Batard said on his radio show, tearing up as he announced the news to his audience.

“John Skipper is one of the finest people I’ve ever worked for,” Jemele Hill, who was suspended by Skipper this year, wrote on Twitter.

Skipper joined Disney’s magazine publishing unit in 1990, after working at Rolling Stone and Spin Magazine. In 1998 he helped launch ESPN The Magazine, which he continued to supervise even as he crafted multibillion-dollar deals with sports leagues across the globe. In 2000 he was promoted to oversee and ESPN’s other internet properties, and in 2005 he became the company’s head of content. As head of the network, he pursued a strategy of acquiring media rights to the most sought-after events rather than trying to produce original programming.

The last six months have been perhaps the most trying time of Skipper’s tenure in charge of the company. Subscriber losses have mounted and the network has endured two painful rounds of layoffs. A number of controversies have erupted around social media use by the company’s employees. The network canceled a partnership with Barstool Sports after just one episode of their collaboration aired amid internal and external uproar.

Last week, The Boston Globe reported on a hostile work environment for women at ESPN. ESPN denied many of the allegations in the story, and it said in a statement that the company was proud of its record of “developing and placing women in key roles at the company in the board room, in leadership positions throughout ESPN and on air.”

There is no obvious successor for Skipper, who has overseen multiple executive shake-ups over the past year. Top executives inside the company include Connor Schell, head of content; Justin Connolly, head of sales and marketing; Russell Wolff, head of ESPN International; and Burke Magnus, head of programming.

The next president will face a host of immediate challenges, as ESPN attempts to continue making money from its traditional — but declining — cable and satellite television business, while also preparing for its digital future as the pay television bundle continues to unravel. The network is committed to spending some $24 billion during the next four years for rights to sports programming.

In the spring, the company will launch ESPN Plus, a digital streaming service it hopes will attract those who don’t subscribe to a television package. ESPN Plus will stream more than 10,000 live events, but it won’t include games shown on ESPN or ESPN2, meaning it will not have the games ESPN considers most attractive.

Disney, which owns ESPN, announced this week that it had reached an agreement to purchase most of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including its 22 regional sports networks. ESPN’s next president will have to integrate those networks and their thousands of employees into the broader ESPN kingdom, as well as figure out how they fit into ESPN and Disney’s broader strategy.