ESPN President's Response to On-Air Defections: 'What, Me Worry?'

After Upfront Pitch, Bristol Boss Plays Down Talent Departures

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'Hamilton' stars Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. perform at the ESPN upfront.
'Hamilton' stars Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. perform at the ESPN upfront. Credit: ESPN via ESPNFrontRow via Vimeo
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ESPN president John Skipper on Tuesday dismissed talk that the network has been weakened by a steady drip-drop of defections from its on-air ranks, telling the scrum of media types gathered in the Minskoff Theatre that his talent roster remains the team to beat in sports TV.

"I didn't see any lack of talent on our stage today," Mr. Skipper said, in a response to a question about a recent string of departures that includes the multi-hyphenate play-by-play man Mike Tirico and former "First Take" provocateur Skip Bayless. "We are very happy with the people who work for us. We are highly focused on new voices and diverse voices and changing the way we look to reflect the way the fan looks now. So we are quite happy with our complement of talent."

Mr. Skipper held court in a cubbyhole on the theatre's orchestra level, just minutes after ESPN's 2016-17 upfront presentation wrapped. Among the talent who appeared on the Minskoff stage were MLB analyst Jessica Mendoza; new hire Sean McDonough, who'll anchor the "Monday Night Football" booth alongside Jon Gruden; "SportsCenter" linchpin Scott Van Pelt; deadpan ESPN veteran and longtime upfront secret weapon Kenny Mayne and "His and Hers" co-hosts Michael Smith and Jamele Hill.

When asked how the search for a replacement for Mr. Bayless was progressing, the ESPN chief said a decision has yet to be made on that score. He also politely refused to comment on speculation that ESPNers Max Kellerman and Will Cain are battling it out for Mr. Bayless' old "First Take" gig. Earlier this morning, "First Take" host Stephen A. Smith told media buyers that while he would miss his irascible on-air foil, "it's time to move on," before adding, "my bosses inform me that it's my show now, so you [advertisers] will continue to get what you've been getting." He went on to joke that the defection of Mr. Bayless to Fox Sports effectively puts the kibosh on any further mentions of Tim Tebow on the show.

Mr. Skipper also briefly addressed the subject of the dismissal of baseball analyst Curt Schilling, who ESPN let go last month after the former Red Sox hurler engaged in a series of mean-spirited social media interactions. "There's a question about [Curt] Schilling. We've been shilling all morning, so I'm not really—I don't think there's any absence of shilling here," Mr. Skipper joked, before making a much more straightforward condemnation of Mr. Schilling's bigoted outburst. "We have no tolerance for points of view that aren't inclusive," he said. "We have a diverse culture, and we are very focused on making sure everybody can exist comfortably and succeed in our culture."

As the Q&A session wound down, Mr. Skipper gave succinct assessments about ESPN's dedication to eSports, its recently announced push to guarantee out-of-home ratings and whether the network would seek to launch a direct-to-consumer, over-the-top service.

On eSports: "I don't know about [calling it] a new frontier. We're going to cover it as a sport, we'll put some games on, we did a special issue of the magazine. We understand that a lot of young men are watching that, and that's a lot of our audience, so we're going to follow it and cover it and do it. We've explored some things to do with it, but we're not getting ready to do a league."

On the OOH initiative: "For the first time, we're excited about the idea that we can measure the out-of-home audience. You're going to see some very dramatic out-of-home numbers from ESPN, and those numbers will be incorporated into our sales estimates, immediately. … Nielsen's going to build them into the ratings so they will be part of the currency."

On the possibility of an OTT launch: "No." (You can't get much more unambiguous than that.)

ESPN's upfront dog-and-pony show featured a performance by "Hamilton" cast members and Tony Award nominees Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr) and Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson), who performed an original number that served as a curtain-raiser for ESPN sales boss (and Broadway aficionado) Ed Erhardt.

"Live performance, like live sports, makes our hearts beat faster," Mr. Erhardt said. "This is the universal power of live. It causes all of us to reconsider things we thought we knew. It is time to challenge, re-think and reconsider how we market, how we measure, how we engage our customers. ESPN embraces this revolution."

In a nod to the emotional impact of sports, where nothing is predetermined and fans live and die on the arc of a passed, batted or lofted ball, Mr. Erhardt unveiled ESPN's new "LiveConnect" ad product, which is designed to customize clients' creative executions and deliver a message that is more contextually relevant in the face of a given outcome.

"At its core, this is about building on our live content advantage and the emotion of sports fans to create better advertising and better results for our clients," Mr. Erhardt said. "Targeting is one piece of the puzzle -- but targeting alone does not result in effective advertising. We're building out a key pillar that utilizes data to help us get to a place where fans see the right message at the right time, in our live environment."

On the heels of a cavalcade of pro jocks (retired Packers/Jets/Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard and Clippers point guard Chris Paul), Mr. Mayne took the stage to give Mr. Erhardt's team the business. "Are you buying that bullshit…about how 18-to-34-year-old males are the only demographic? My daughters aren't male, they're not 18, but I'm a human ATM for them and they're buying a lot of the crap you people are selling," he snarked.

The upfront pitch wrapped on a cutdown of the upcoming doc series "OJ: Made in America" and a curtain call from Mr. Odom and Mr. Diggs, who were accompanied by guitarist and prolific sideman (Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Paul Simon, to name a few) Arlen Roth.

Before excusing himself from the postgame presser, Mr. Skipper told reporters that ESPN accounts for 54% of the consumption of sports news and information in the U.S., and noted that if "SportsCenter" were a standalone network, it would be the sixth-largest cable channel among men 18-to-34.