Jimmy Pitaro, a seasoned digital executive who has been president of ESPN for the past year and a half, offered a predictably upbeat assessment of the Disney unit in an appearance Thursday at the Paley Center.
The 45-minute conversation with SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm started with a four-minute recitation of ratings gains across several programs, from U.S. Open tennis to Monday Night Football to Major League baseball. The session steered clear of controversial topics like the recent push away from politics, carriage talks with AT&T/DirecTV or coziness with sports leagues. Even so, it offered some rare public samples of the thinking from the corner office at a dynamic moment in sports media.
Pitaro, both during the session and in the Q&A portion afterward, expressed confidence in the ability of the network to continue to retain sports rights. Atop the list in terms of dollars is the network’s deal with the NFL for Monday Night Football, which will expire 2021. Pitaro said he is well-aware that many interested parties — from big tech firms to streaming upstarts like DAZN to other legacy media companies — are likely to bid. Even so, he said, “I still very much like ESPN’s hand.”
As to whether the technology of streaming has progressed to the point where a Monday night game could be served digitally, Pitaro said, “The leagues will have to be convinced and certain that the products are stable. … This is all about reach. It’s called ‘broadcast’ for a reason.” Even though ESPN will be competing with Silicon Valley giants with vast resources, he said, “We bring more than just ESPN to the table. We bring ABC and the power of the Walt Disney Co. I don’t know many companies that can do that.”
The discussion of the rights negotiations sparked an interesting exchange among some of the 100 or so attendees at the intimate Paley event. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern and Hearst executive vice chairman Frank Bennack were among those weighing in. The upshot: good relationships plus the highest price tends to carry the day in any negotiation.
Streaming remains a major priority for ESPN, Pitaro said, noting that he speaks daily with Kevin Mayer, head of Disney’s Direct-to-Consumer and International division.
“We knew we had to get the user experience right and we very much did,” Pitaro said of ESPN+, the $5-a-month streaming complement to the pay-TV ESPN signal. “On top of that, we knew it had to scale. … It was important that when we launched this thing, we knew it was not going to crash.”
ESPN+ passed 2 million subscribers earlier this year, less than a year after its spring 2018 launch, and Disney projects it will have 12 million customers by 2024. (Storm did not bring up the bundling of ESPN+ with basic Hulu and Disney+, a package that was announced earlier this summer.)
Determining what programming goes on the pay-TV networks versus subscription streaming is a daily challenge, Pitaro acknowledged. “Every deal that we’re negotiating right now, we’re focused on including an ESPN+ component, ” he said.
Asked about legalized sports betting, Pitaro said he feels ESPN is “off and running” in that area, running a daily gambling show on ESPN2, a podcast and building a set at Caesar’s sports book in Las Vegas. Even so, there are limits to how much the network can flood that particular zone. Mirroring the cautious tenor of Disney CEO Bob Iger — in contrast to the more eager appetites of Fox Corp. and others in media — Pitaro declared, “We are not going to be a book. We are not going to take people’s money. That’s not what we do.”
The ACC Network, a rare linear launch in an era of cord-cutting, has gotten off to a solid start, Pitaro argued. “It’s incorrect to look at the ACC Network as just a linear, traditional television network. This is a cross-platform, multi-platform experience,” he said. “We’re in a good place. We’re checking the box in terms of linear distribution but we’re also taking the experience to new fans.”
Two video clips screened during the session: one was a teaser of the upcoming co-venture with Netflix documenting the Chicago Bulls’ final title run in 1997-98 and the other was a new brand spot. Of the ESPN brand, Pitaro summed it up as “substance, heart and, where appropriate, humor.”