University of Southern California

ESPN President John Skipper Comes to Campus
Discusses ESPN’s Corporate Strategy at SBI’s Annual Commissioners’ Series Forum
January 24, 2014 • by News at Marshall

John Skipper, ESPN president and Disney Media Networks co-chair, sat down with David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute, for an exclusive interview as part of the Sports Business Institute’s Commissioners’ Series. The event, which drew more than 200 industry professionals and Marshall students, was held at Town and Gown on Jan. 3.

The hour-long conversation focused on ESPN’s leadership position, the company’s strategic initiatives and some of its challenges. “Our job,” said Skipper, “is to serve sports fans.”

Asked how ESPN continues to maintain its leadership position, Skipper pointed to what he believes is ESPN’s signature strength: focus. “We have a clear idea of what we do,” he said. “You don’t see us straying from what we do. Competition,” he added, “hasn’t changed us. It sharpens us. It makes us better competitors.”

Skipper identified organizational structure as key to managing ESPN’s large portfolio of assets, which include eight 24/7 linear networks. ESPN is not organized by business units, but a singular group that collaborates across properties.

Skipper discussed other industry trends, such as the second screen experience, and shared that 90 percent of all DVR-ed sports are never watched and that the phenomenon of cord cutters is actually quite small. “Fans,” he stressed, “want insights that are meaningful.” Skipper pointed to ESPN’s recruitment of Nate Silver, “the signature analytics voice in the country” to the network. Mobile, he said, was the most important platform in media; in September 2013, for the first time, ESPN had more fans accessing their mobile site than their main site.

Previously, ESPN’s executive vice president, content, and responsible for the creation, programming and production of ESPN content across all media platforms, Skipper indicated that sometimes the network brings in specialists such as political scientists and cultural experts because it is important to understand the nuances and contexts surrounding some international events.

The interview also touched upon the company’s international growth strategy. The challenge, Skipper noted, is the prevalence of one dominant sport, soccer, in Europe, and cricket in India, versus the wide range of sports covered in the U.S. market. As such, ESPN’s model in these regions is more focused on news. Latin America, he indicated, is more similar to the United States, but it can’t be done solely as a U.S. model. Thus, the company is looking at regional opportunities.

In addition to the business aspect of sports, Skipper also noted the unique role sports play as a unifier within American society. Increasingly, he said, despite widely differing ideas on politics and other aspects of daily life, when talk turns to “last night’s game,” most will have seen it and can engage in conversation.

About the Commissioners Series:
Commissioners’ Series events are signature events hosted by the Sports Business Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business, featuring leaders of the American’s premier sports leagues and organizations. The series, sponsored by USA Today Sports Media Group, celebrates the commissioners and presidents of these organizations who exhibit exemplary leadership skills. These figures discuss leadership and ethics in the context of contemporary business issues facing their respective leagues or organizations and share advice on how to achieve success in the sports industry. Previous speakers have included MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, UFC Co-Founder Lorenzo Fertitta, NCAA President Mark Emmert, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.