ESPN Boss, "in the Crosshairs," Dismisses Talent Exits, Touts 'SportsCenter' Shift at Upfront

Bryce Harper and Jessica Mendoza during the 2016 ESPN Upfront event-H 2016
Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images

Disparaged in the media for dampening the Disney narrative, cable flagship ESPN opened the second day of upfront week on Tuesday with a barrage of on-air talent and professional athletes emphasizing that the network is still the premier destination for TV's DVR-proof genre: sports and live entertainment. There was no talk of the net's recent departures, ratings dips or cable subscribers balking at its disproportionately expensive carriage fees onstage at the Minskoff Theatre, but ESPN topper John Skipper happily addressed it all after the show.

At the top of a meeting with several dozen reporters, Skipper was asked how he felt about the brand being the focus of investor frustrations on a recent earnings call. "The Walt Disney Company released their 11th straight quarter of double-digit earnings last week, so I'd be happy to be in the crosshairs of that," said the ESPN Inc. president and Disney Media Networks co-chair, calling out "real traction" in discussions with placement on distributors such as Sony, Roku and Sling. "We think we still have a little swagger. I don't think I'd characterize it as being in the crosshairs."

Any talk of an over-the-top ESPN service for nonsubscribers? Skipper offered only an emphatic and decisive "no."

The main pitch for this year's presentation, one that seemed to go over well with the crowd of media buyers, was ESPN's continued ability to draw live audiences — be it on a television set or the Watch ESPN app. The notion of the company's brand identity was not pushed too heavily, but it's something Skipper was clearly confident about when another reporter asked him about the ratings declines at SportsCenter.

"Anyone who says SportsCenter does not remain central to a sports fan's experience is not accurate," he said. "We understand that fans are going to get some of their scores and highlights from digital media — but they're going to get them from ESPN. … We're beginning to see some nice momentum from the changes we're making at SportsCenter. The numbers in April and May are starting to go up. We have quite a bit of momentum."

In addition to the confidence, both general and for SportsCenter specifically, here are are three more takeaways from ESPN's upfront presentation and the subsequent informal presser with Skipper:

1. Talent Problem? What Talent Problem?

Exits have plagued ESPN in recent years, most recently those of Curt Schilling and Mike Tirico, but Skipper appeared unfazed. "I did not see any lack of talent on our stage today," he said of a program that included Michael Smith, Jemele Hill, Jessica Mendoza, Scott Van Pelt and crowd-favorite Kenny Mayne. "We are very happy with the people who work for us. We're highlighting new voices, diverse voices, and changing the way we look to reflect the way the fan looks now. We're quite happy with our talent." When asked about Skip Bayless and several others, Skipper offered a firm and polite, "I have no comment on why any one particular person left." Bayless' First Take seat is not a vacancy the network appears to be in a rush to fill. "I'm going to miss him, but it's time to move on," commented remaining host Stephen A. Smith. "And my bosses inform me that it's my show now. You will continue to get what you've been getting."

2. Viewers Are Streaming Live, and Those Ratings Will Soon Count

Talking points about ESPN's huge audience were deployed liberally. One PowerPoint slide promised 120 million Americans, a third of the population, tuning in over Labor Day weekend alone thanks to U.S. Open and college football coverage. Additionally, the network cited 700,000+ streams of last season's Michigan-Michigan State football game and a 74 percent year-to-year boost in SportsCenter's live online views — as well as boasted of cable dominance among men 18-49, across the board. "We're excited about the idea that we're going to measure our full audience," added Skipper. "You're going to see some very dramatic out-of-home numbers from ESPN. They will be in our Nielsen numbers starting in 2017."

3. Curt Schilling Got an Apolitical Axing

One departure Skipper directly addressed, though not by name, was that of Schilling. The sportscaster, who has since endorsed Donald Trump for president, was fired in April for making anti-transgender comments on Facebook. "We have no tolerance for points of view that aren't inclusive," said Skipper. "We have a diverse culture. We are very focused on making sure everybody can succeed in that culture. I don't care what [the] politics of such a person who has such an attitude are."