A sports TV executive who looked at ESPN president John Skipper with a mixture of admiration and skepticism once offered me a theory of the man. Skipper, the executive said, was a great peacetime general. When ESPN was flush, Skipper greenlit 30 for 30, Grantland, and the acquisition of FiveThirtyEight. He knew quality. He spoke a language that editorial people could understand. But now ESPN was in a battle for its standing in the new-media universe, the executive continued, and he wondered whether Skipper was a wartime leader.
After Monday morning’s announcement, the situation is even grimmer. ESPN is in a war and doesn’t have a general at all.
Reading the press release that Skipper is leaving because of a substance addiction makes you think, It feels like something is missing ... Skipper just signed a contract extension. Last week, he summoned his troops to ESPN’s Bristol campus. The ostensible purpose was clarifying the network’s social media policy, but Skipper’s message was that things were going to be OK. “At the end of this meeting, I want you to be confident about the future of ESPN,” he said, adding, “I want to lead an ESPN that strives purposely and confidently into a new world which is not scary but exciting.” Now, it’s officially scary.
The last year of Skipper’s command was an annus horribilis by any measure. ESPN had two talent-draining and soul-sucking rounds of layoffs. The president of the United States put the network on his enemies list. There was the Robert Lee switcheroo and exactly one episode of Barstool Van Talk. There were sexual harassment allegations. There was—of course—cord-cutting. It says something when the semi-retirement of Chris Berman, ESPN’s first and biggest star, is all but forgotten.
This year, there was also a lot of grumbling about Skipper. (Most of it was off-the-record, because Skipper was still signing the checks.) Cord-cutting is a nightmare that everyone from Disney chief Bob Iger on down is trying to figure out. But the Lee and Barstool fiascoes seemed like unforced errors. Moreover, they seemed like the opposite errors. Pulling Lee off a broadcast was a strained attempt not to offend anyone whereas hiring the Barstool lads was ESPN’s admission that the network might have to offend people to find a new audience.
Skipper’s meek response to President Donald Trump’s attacks on Jemele Hill also caused some eye-rolling. “Are you a news organization or not?” one person who dealt with Skipper wondered. “I think Skipper has a lot of positives. I really, really like the man a lot. But he needs a little cowboy in him. Tell the president to go fuck himself.”
An ESPN employee told me that when Skipper didn’t staunchly defend Hill, it was the moment the rank-and-file began to wonder if the network really had their backs. But the employee said it might not matter. Such is the money and power and status—even now—of working for the Worldwide Leader.
To the outside world, Skipper spent the past year acting like an executive under siege. He took the stage at May’s upfront and cooed that “we are making changes from the most dramatic position of strength.” But he didn’t answer questions from reporters afterward—something he did even after he decided not to renew the contract of my boss and then-Grantland chief, Bill Simmons. He was happy to send me statements about everyone from Hill to Dick Vitale but never got on the phone.
Skipper remained well liked, and often seen, by a lot of ESPN’s best and smartest employees. Hill and Skipper had a long, private breakfast after her two-week suspension in October—a sign of their great affection for each other, even after everything that had gone down.
George Bodenheimer, ESPN’s former president, will take over while Iger searches for Skipper’s replacement. He faces all the same headaches Skipper did. What do we do about cord-cutting? What do we do about Mike Greenberg’s morning show—now delayed because of yet another expensive studio construction project? What do we do about SC6, which neither the executives nor the hosts are thrilled with? What do we do about Jemele?
As a man from another media epoch, Bodenheimer is now being asked to refine ESPN’s strategy. The real question is: In 2018, what is ESPN?
FS1 chieftain Jamie Horowitz—a former Skipper pupil—was fired back in July, meaning our two biggest cable sports networks lost their leaders within six months of one another. That follows the horrors at FoxSports.com, Vice Sports, MTV News, and many other outlets. (Barstool, of all places, now seems like the model of C-suite stability.) It raises a question not just for ESPN but for all the smaller fish that swim in its wake, one that now hangs over everything in the sports media. If not John Skipper, who are the generals that are going to help us survive this war?