ESPN President resigns, citing substance addiction problem

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John Skipper’s announcement stuns the sports media business

Los Angeles Times

ESPN President John Skipper resigned Monday, citing a substance addiction problem, in a move that stunned the sports media business.

Skipper led a sports juggernaut that is a big moneymaker for parent company Walt Disney Co., but it has been struggling as its main cable channel’s ratings and subscriber counts fall. It also may be on the cusp of transformation — Disney agreed last week to acquire much of the Fox entertainment empire, including nearly two dozen regional sports channels.

George Bodenheimer, who served as ESPN’s president from 1998 to 2011, is taking the helm at ESPN for the next three months and helping find a permanent successor for Skipper, Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Iger said.

Skipper joined ESPN in 1997 and served as executive vice president of content before becoming president in 2012.

“I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction,” Skipper said in a statement Monday. “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.”

Iger issued a statement wishing Skipper well. “I respect his candor and support his decision to focus on his health and his family,” he said.

Skipper’s departure comes days after the Boston Globe published a report describing a “locker-room culture” at ESPN in which, it said, men hit on female colleagues, give them unsolicited shoulder rubs and openly rank them by appearance.

ESPN pushed back against the Globe’s Thursday report, which was based on interviews with about two dozen current and former employees.

“We work hard to maintain a respectful and inclusive culture at ESPN,” spokeswoman Katina Arnold said in a statement last week. “It is always a work in progress, but we’re proud of the significant progress we’ve made in developing and placing women in key roles at the company in the boardroom, in leadership positions throughout ESPN and on air.”

Skipper’s departure also comes days after Disney finalized a $52.4-billion deal to buy much of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox entertainment empire — including Fox’s 22 regional sports channels, but not including national cable channels Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.

Bristol, Conn.-based ESPN has been grappling with subscriber losses and lower ratings. Seven years ago, ESPN was available in about 99 million homes in the U.S., but now it is found in about 87 million homes, according to Nielsen data. Those losses have significantly reduced the fees that Disney receives from pay-TV operators for the rights to carry ESPN, which is the most expensive basic cable channel.

The sports giant has been trying to find its footing in the fast-moving television landscape and has shed hundreds of employees. Viewers no longer wait to watch “SportsCenter” because sports scores and video clips of game highlights are ubiquitous on the internet and smartphones.

ESPN could use Fox’s regional sports channels as a source for additional content, particularly live games. That content might also be made available on the proposed ESPN streaming service that Disney is expected to launch next year.

Skipper’s contract with ESPN was due to expire in 2018, but it was expected to be extended through 2021. The extension would have been a vote of confidence in his leadership.

“We’ve never lost our bullishness about ESPN,” Disney CEO Iger said in November. “The brand is strong. The quality of their programming is strong.”

Bodenheimer, who on Monday began an expected 90-day stint as ESPN’s acting chair, got his start at the network as a mailroom clerk. He rose through the ranks to be the company’s longest-serving president from 1998 to 2011, then became the company’s chairman before leaving in 2014.

ESPN employees and members of the media rallied around Skipper on Twitter, expressing support for the executive and thanking him for his leadership.

Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” described Skipper as “one of the finest people” she’d ever worked for. Her comments came even though Skipper suspended her for two weeks in October after she tweeted that fans unhappy with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones should boycott the team’s advertisers and stop buying merchandise.

ESPN radio host Sarah Spain also took to Twitter to praise Skipper’s leadership, particularly his diversity efforts in a notoriously male-dominated industry.

“John Skipper’s commitment to diversity & inclusion at ESPN has been not only inspiring, but comforting to those of us who want to believe things are headed in the right direction,” Spain tweeted. “Deeply saddened to hear of his resignation.”

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