Bring It On: ESPN's John Skipper Welcomes the Competition

Network Will Aggressively Try to Retain Rights to the Most Crucial Content: Sports

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BRISTOL, Conn. -- If ESPN President John Skipper didn't exactly come out swinging against competitors during ESPN's "Media Day" Wednesday, he reminded everyone why the self-styled Worldwide Leader in Sports is No. 1. It has more reach (over 98 million homes), more key rights deals with major franchises including the NFL, NBA, MLB and NCAA, more advertisers and higher subscriber fees than anybody else. ESPN will aggressively defend its throne, said Mr. Skipper.

And there are plenty of would-be usurpers these days.

ESPN President John Skipper at 'Media Day'
ESPN President John Skipper at 'Media Day' Credit: ESPN

Fox Sports 1, the new network from 21st Century Fox, has made no bones about directly challenging ESPN for live events, TV viewers and sponsors on Madison Avenue. The combo of Fox Sports and FS1 combo just outbid Disney's ESPN for the rights to U.S. Open Golf starting in 2015.

Ditto for Comcast's NBC Sports/NBC Sports Network combo, which beat out ESPN for NASCAR beginning in 2015 along with Fox/FS1.

ESPN has already seen a migration of on-air talent to its new competition. Erin Andrews and Charissa Thompson left for Fox, Michelle Beadle to NBC.

And All Things D reported that Google has begun talking to the NFL about taking over DirecTV's Sunday Ticket game package -- raising the possibility ESPN will have to compete with Google/YouTube and other digital platforms for sports rights in the future.

It's even come in for some political heat. At an average cost of more than $5 per subscriber, U.S. Senator John McCain singled ESPN out for criticism this year as one of the prime reasons why consumer cable bills are so expensive. Mr. McCain pushed for so-called a la carte cable, where consumers pick their own channels rather paying for expensive programming bundles.

'Sharper and better'

Referring to the FS1 and NBCSN, Mr. Skipper said they'll make ESPN "sharper and better." He reminded the various old and new media types in attendance that ESPN continues to make its own big talent hires.

Prodigal ESPN son Keith Olbermann's new show debuts Monday night. Mr. Skipper promised the controversial anchor will stick to sports, not the partisan politics he became known for at MSNBC.

"What Jon Stewart does for the news of the day, I think Keith will do for the sports news of the day," said Mr. Skipper.

Similarly, just-hired Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock will stick to sports, culture and TV, according to Mr. Skipper. Mr. Whitlock told ESPN columnist Bill Simmons he envisions his planned site as a "black" version of Mr. Simmons' own Grantland.com.

Statistician Nate Silver, who wrote the FiveThirtyEight.com blog for the NYT, is also coming on board. Ex-NBC analyst Jerome Bettis was just added to ESPN's NFL coverage. ESPN is also bringing back funnyman anchor Kenny Mayne as a fill-in anchor for SportsCenter Los Angeles.

The key content: sports

But all the on-air talent in the world won't matter without the actual sports franchises. And ESPN isn't going to give those up -- to broadcast, cable or internet companies -- without a fight. For starters, Mr. Skipper said the network will defend its TV rights deal with NBA, which expires after the 2015/2016 season. "The NBA is a critical product for us. It's a league in great shape right now doing very well. Our clear intention is to maintain our relationship with the NBA. We expect to be aggressive in doing that."

Mr. Skipper was "pretty skeptical" that major sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA will sell live game rights to digital platforms such as Google/YouTube or Yahoo instead of broadcast or cable networks.

Certainly, sports leagues like to "float" the idea to drive up prices, said Mr. Skipper. But live sports are the ultimate appointment TV. He doubts sports fans will go to Google/YouTube, or other digital platforms, to watch live games.

"I don't believe that's going to happen. Those sites are not built for appointment viewing. You go there to watch archival content," Mr. Skipper said.

Not that the network is ignoring the web. ESPN's in preliminary talks to sell its programming to Web-based TV services said Mr. Skipper, although he declined to name names.

Similar to the way that ESPN dealt with then-new satellite TV providers such as DirecTV, Internet TV providers would have to pay as much, or more, than ESPN's current cable/satellite clients. They would also have to pay for the company's whole suite of products, he added.

About a la carte

When it comes to the politics of a la carte pricing, Mr. Skipper defended the current pay TV model, saying it's a "myth" that many homes are forced to pay for ESPN without watching it. "Eighty-three percent of every household that gets ESPN watches ESPN," he said.

If a la carte cable is implemented and ESPN ended up costing more money for viewers -- the industry's argument against such proposals -- sports fans would pay it, he predicted.

"We'd be fine," he said. "Showtime and HBO have already proved that some large numbers of people will pay a monthly fee, a significant monthly fee, for great content."

ESPN also made it a point to show off a cavernous new digital center under construction that will become the new home of its flagship "SportsCenter" program. The nearly 10,000 square foot studio will enable ESPN to employ different sets for different editions of "SportsCenter," said Senior VP Mark Gross.

But make no mistake: The rank and file at ESPN all closely watched the rollout of FS1 on Saturday, said ESPN anchor Steve Levy.

"Not that we needed a wakeup but it's been a nice bump," said Mr. Levy about FS1. "I can tell you our show meeting on Saturday had a different feel to it than previous show meetings. Everyone is well-aware of what's at stake here and what's going on. We're rather confident and we like our chances to continue on top."

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