"I am humbled and excited to be given the opportunity ... to lead this… (Rob Loud, Getty Images for…)
ESPN has a new skipper.
Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger on Tuesday announced he was elevating John Skipper to lead the company's sports programming juggernaut. For the last six years, the former Rolling Stone and Spin magazine executive has been in charge of programming and production across ESPN's phalanx of media platforms, including its TV channels, radio network and the Internet.
Skipper, 55, will become ESPN president and co-chairman of the Disney Media Networks, replacing George Bodenheimer, who has been running Disney's most profitable division for 13 years. Disney said Bodenheimer, 53, who has worked at ESPN since 1981, wanted to step back from day-to-day management but will remain with ESPN in the newly created role of executive chairman. His contract would have expired at the end of 2011.
The executive shuffle, effective Jan. 1, is significant because it's the first change in more than a decade at the top of a remarkably stable division. Bodenheimer will continue to report to Iger. Skipper, who has been with Disney for 22 years, will report to Iger and Bodenheimer.
"We have been focused on succession at all levels of Disney for some time now, and consistent with that approach, George initiated conversations last spring that led to [this] announcement," Iger said in a statement.
Nearly two months ago, Iger himself signed a new five-year agreement that will keep him at the helm of the media colossus through 2015.
ESPN's U.S. television channels generated more than $8.2 billion in revenue and $2.4 billion in operating income last year, according to consulting firm SNL Kagan. ESPN, based in Bristol, Conn., boasts eight U.S. television networks, five high-definition services, 48 international networks, a 3-D TV channel and 750 radio affiliates. Burbank-based Disney owns 80% of ESPN, and the Hearst Corp. holds the remainder.
There are 13 international editions of the network's sports news program "SportsCenter," which observers say has changed the face and quickened the pace of TV sports newscasts. Its "Monday Night Football" franchise consistently ranks as cable's most popular program. On Monday, more than 12.3 million viewers tuned in.
"They have become this generation's MTV in terms of their influence," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC. "ESPN has done an extraordinary job of distributing their content throughout ESPN's various platforms.
As executive chairman of ESPN, Bodenheimer will provide "strategic direction and support a seamless transition to Skipper," Disney said in its statement. He also will continue to oversee the ESPN board of directors.
Both Bodenheimer and Skipper declined interview requests. But the former head of programming for ESPN acknowledged Bodenheimer's desire to turn over the day-to-day reins.
"Nobody can understand how big and demanding that job is," said Mark Shapiro, currently CEO of Dick Clark Productions. "It's grueling. He has tried very hard to balance work and life, and that had a lot to do with his decision to step aside. He felt now is the time, and he had to be convinced to stay on as chairman."
The shift was also significant because Skipper came up through the content production side, unlike Bodenheimer or Sean Bratches, another well-respected ESPN executive, who has been in charge of ESPN distribution for more than a decade.
"For anyone who has been watching ESPN closely, you will have seen John Skipper's influence and fingerprints all over ESPN's big decisions and programming direction for a number of years now," Carter said. "This should be a smooth move."
A native of North Carolina, Skipper earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature. He worked for 10 years at Straight Arrow Publishing, owner of Rolling Stone, including eight years at the magazine. He also served as publisher of Straight Arrow's US Weekly magazine and publishing director of Rolling Stone's rival, Spin magazine. Skipper joined Disney's magazine publishing group in 1990. In 1997, he moved to ESPN as general manager of ESPN the Magazine, overseeing its successful launch.
Since 2005, Skipper has been responsible for the creation, programming and production of all ESPN content. A key member of Bodenheimer's team, he helped negotiate major rights agreements with the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and this summer he served an ace by winning the rights to the Wimbledon Grand Slam tennis broadcasts, a franchise that NBC had owned for decades.
"I am humbled and excited to be given the opportunity by Bob and George to lead this terrific company," Skipper said in a statement. "I will dedicate all of my energy to follow George's lead in both empowering and supporting my 7,000 ESPN colleagues who do such great work every day."
Skipper will share the role of co-chairman of the Disney Media Networks with Anne Sweeney, who runs Disney's entertainment channels, including the ABC broadcast network, the Disney Channel and ABC Family from Burbank.
For sports business executives, it will be difficult to envision ESPN led by someone other than Bodenheimer, a Connecticut native who began his career in ESPN's mailroom before taking a job driving a rental car around Texas trying to persuade small cable TV operators to carry the fledging network, then known as Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
"I often use George as an example of an executive who doesn't fit the mold," said Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports who teaches a graduate level leadership class at Columbia University. "He doesn't yell or jump around or dominate a conversation. But if you spend more than a few minutes with him, you will realize that he's very knowledgeable and understands the process of sports entertainment."
Times staff writer Joe Flint contributed to this report.