Jimmy Pitaro, the former Disney and Yahoo exec who took over earlier this year as ESPN president after the abrupt departure of John Skipper, borrowed at least one page from Skipper’s playbook, meeting with the media after the network’s upfront event.
The press briefing in the Minskoff Theatre went longer than Skipper’s annual scrums with reporters, and it also featured the full senior management team standing in the back and weighing in on some topics. The discussion covered everything from the progress of ESPN+ (Pitaro refused to give numbers but said conversions are “high”) to the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gambling (“the space is interesting to us”) to the network’s relationship with the NFL (“not strained”).
While Pitaro acknowledged that he is still for now living in LA and commuting to Connecticut each week, he said his initial sense is that the waves of change hitting the longtime sports mainstay in recent years have not taken a toll. “Morale is incredibly high,” he said. “The energy that I’m getting is incredibly powerful. We did a town hall in my first or second week on the job. After the town hall, hundreds of people were coming up to me afterward, thousands of people emailing me, just to say how excited they are to be a part of this group.”
As this decade began, ESPN had more than 100 million subscribers. That number has dropped below 87 million, with a mushrooming array of digital options steadily leeching away viewers. Saddled with multi-billion-dollar rights deals for NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball games, the network has initiated several rounds of layoffs and reconceived its operations to try to keep pace with the mobile-driven sports fan. Along the way, some notable talent has left the fold. Through it all, ESPN still routinely puts up gaudy ratings, with the NFL Draft and the NBA Playoffs this spring being two recent examples. Special events are still the bread and butter — it’s filling 24 hours on the air and optimizing digital platforms that has presented a new set of challenges.
“We’re seeing things move quickly,” Pitaro said. “More quickly than they’ve ever moved or changed before. The team has not sat idle. They have made the decision that we are going to invest in building a direct relationship with the customer.”
Pitaro, a 48-year-old New York native steeped in digital media, is said to be a longtime favorite of Disney CEO Bob Iger. His interactions with the media showed a savvy exec who is notably different from Skipper, the lanky, literature-quoting North Carolinian, but with his own crisp style, Pitaro highlighted the consistency that remains at the nearly 40-year-old media company. “The mission statement of ESPN,” he emphasized, “has not changed.”
The ESPN+ app, which costs $5 a month for a richer version of the standard, free app, launched April 12. It is progressing well, Pitaro said, though he declined to offer any stats. “We are happy with the number of people who are engaging with the app. Engagement, reach: up,” he said. “We’re pleased with the number of users who are trying out the app, and we’re also pleased with the conversion rate, people converting from the free to the paid experience.”
Asked about what programming is prompting viewers to convert, Pitaro said it breaks down into two categories: one is diehards who “just need more sports,” and the second are fans who “feel somewhat underserved” by other sports media offerings. One way the app addresses the latter, he said, is personalization technology. So the BAMTech-designed app, like all algorithmic digital experiences, absorbs the fact that someone is, say, a Winnepeg Jets fan and serves them accordingly.
As to the NFL, Pitaro said, “The relationship is not strained. … We are both acknowledging that together we need to grow the game of football. That’s the priority.” Asked about the future of Monday Night Football, whose eight-year deal with the network expires in 2021, he declined to comment.
A landmark ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which legalizes sports gambling, opens up new opportunities for networks like ESPN as well as sports leagues and fantasy-sports companies like DraftKings. “We’re actively monitoring and we’re looking at the space,” Pitaro said. “The space is interesting to us, especially from a programming perspective.” Burke Magnus, EVP of programming and scheduling, noted that leagues vary in terms of their disposition toward gambling, with the NBA being vocally in favor of promoting it, while the NCAA has more sensitivity around it.