ESPN's Content Chief Sees World Cup as Ultimate Multiplatform Play

John Skipper's Programming Search Has 'Many Distribution Mouths to Feed'

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NEW YORK ( -- As a multiplatform content company, ESPN is considered the gold standard within Walt Disney Co. And much of ESPN's success in that regard is thanks to John Skipper, who late last year was also handed the sports network's programming reigns.
John Skipper
Mr. Skipper was also integrally involved in negotiating the rights to the World Cup, flying to Zurich to meet with FIFA officials. He believes the quadrennial World Cup, soccer's global crown jewel held this year in Germany, will be big domestically -- especially online, given the time difference -- and has the potential to explode as soccer's popularity in the U.S. continues to grow thanks to an equally growing Hispanic population. Ad Age Digital pitched him five questions, including why he's limiting the broadband broadcasts of games and what advice he'd give to today's print publishers.
Ad Age Digital: Sounds like you believe the FIFA World Cup can be a pretty big property online, yet you're broadcasting it on broadband through ESPN 360, a product that's only available to 8 million people through their Internet service providers. Why?

Mr. Skipper: It'll be enormous online, partially because of when the games are being played -- they're being played during business hours in this country. You're going to have lots of people online, getting scores, checking it out. That's why we're broadcasting the games on broadband. ... But we've always found it strategic to put quality programming on platforms we're trying to grow, because, of course, consumer demand drives distribution. And there's a second thing, which is the level of quality on 360, because the broadband connection will provide a better user experience. So it's good for the fans, it's good for our business.

Ad Age Digital: You took on content responsibilities a few months ago after leading ESPN's online charge. When you're evaluating programming, how does "digital media potential" play into your decisions?

Mr. Skipper: It matters a lot. First, when we acquire rights now we are only in the business of acquiring rights across all platforms. When we look at things like original entertainment, we're primarily at this point interested in original entertainment that can play across a number of platforms. ... We believe fundamentally in serving sports fans everywhere and anytime and it's how we have to think. It's a point of differentiation for us as well. We don't do television programs to figure out how to move them around. We think about how to just take content, whether it be Nascar content or World Cup content or an EOE [ESPN Original Entertainment] dramatic series and use it across all of our platforms. We've got a lot of distribution mouths to feed.

Ad Age Digital: You say when you go out negotiating rights agreements you're looking for rights you can own across multiple platforms. How does a league like Major League Baseball negotiate TV deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars and then turn around and offer online broadcasts of those games directly to consumers?

Mr. Skipper: We work pretty cooperatively with baseball. We have rights for baseball across our platforms. The difference with baseball is you have to acquire some of those rights with BAM -- Baseball Advanced Media -- rather than MLB. So it's a little different process but we still operate most of the same way. And look, you've got to give baseball a certain amount of credit. They've been aggressive at trying to exploit digital media. Displaced fans can watch their games on We work on that together, we promote it and you can get it off of

Ad Age Digital: You come from a print background, formerly heading up Disney's magazine group and launching ESPN the Magazine. What advice to you have for print publishers today?

Mr. Skipper: I'm not sure I have any great advice. Most print publishers have something profoundly harder to do than we do. We're about a category -- sports. Now everybody in print, the first thing they try to do is take their print product and put it online. For the most part that's a bad experience. It's a better experience in a magazine. Paper and ink is a better experience than a screen if all you're doing is reading text or looking at photographs. You've got to figure out how to do things that can only be done in that medium. I'll give you an example: A magazine can do a story about the NBA draft lottery and what's coming up and analyze it. But on we do a draft lottery wheel. You hit your team, say the Knicks, and it spins like a casino wheel and gives you one of the 6,000 chances for how the draft might shape up. ... You've got to do interactive things. You embed video in story, so if read it online you can click to watch video that goes along with the story. You have to do things that work only in the medium.

Ad Age Digital: What sport extends across multiple digital media properties the best?

Mr. Skipper: Baseball and basketball work very well because of the quantity of the games, there's just so much content. And they're so numbers driven -- averages, point averages, assists, batting averages and fantasy works great.
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