John Skipper: 7 Tenets of ESPN’s Success

Ever since he joined the ESPN team in 1997, John Skipper has been a key force in the brand’s sustained success. Largely because of his leadership, ESPN has set records for television ratings and digital viewership. He has been instrumental in the successful negotiation of several wide-ranging rights agreements with the NFL, NBA, MLB, the […]

John Skipper: 7 Tenets of ESPN’s Success
June 21, 2013

Ever since he joined the ESPN team in 1997, John Skipper has been a key force in the brand’s sustained success. Largely because of his leadership, ESPN has set records for television ratings and digital viewership. He has been instrumental in the successful negotiation of several wide-ranging rights agreements with the NFL, NBA, MLB, the Masters Tournament, British Open, Wimbledon, and several college conferences.

Prior to becoming the president of ESPN, Inc. and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks in 2012, Skipper oversaw content across all ESPN platforms. During his years leading content, the collective audience for ESPN’s domestic television networks rose 31 percent, and weekly users of all of ESPN’s cross-platform content rose 25 percent to more than 101 million fans. In both 2010 and 2011, ESPN’s U.S. networks combined to set records for the most-watched fiscal year in the company’s history.

“Day One. From the beginning, we were forging new territory, turning sports reporting into a business.”

Skipper’s ability to consistently find a synergy between sports reporting, business objectives, creative content, and now its entry into the awards arena with its Los Angeles-based ESPY awards is what impresses the most. While he admitted there’s no “secret sauce” recipe to divulge, he pointed out the following tenets to the brand’s success:

  1. Know, trust, serve, and continue to delight your fans. As sports fans, we know what it’s like to be excited and what will then excite our fans.
  2. Foster a competitive culture. Being in Bristol, CT, outside of New York City but still influenced by its aggressiveness, we are protected from distractions we might have if we were in another location and are better able to be in a creative and risk-taking setting where our competitiveness can grow.
  3. Never become complacent. It’s dangerous and a losing strategy to become too focused on defending what you already have.
  4. Try new things. Momentum is a terrible thing to waste. We continue to act like an insurgent instead of an incumbent.
  5. Be curious and creative; trust and act on your instincts.
  6. Be agile and able to shift course quickly. We’re thoughtful, but we can’t wait for absolute certainty. I’d rather be 90 percent right in a day than 99 percent right in a week.
  7. Accept your mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Mistakes are unavoidable. Just don’t keep repeating the same ones.

Regarding some of the network’s toughest challenges, Skipper laughed and shot back, “Day One. From the beginning, we were forging new territory, turning sports reporting into a business.” Skipper mindfully directed credit to the executives who persevered through those times, as it preceded his tenure.

The biggest lesson learned from the early days? It is nearly impossible to report too much sports news; sports fans’ appetite to know about their teams is nearly insatiable.

Regarding mentors, Skipper mentioned George Bodeinheimer, former president of ESPN and Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone. Bodeinheimer, he recalls, advised him to temper his tendency to be impulsive and also to watch his sardonic attitude, both of which would get in his way. From Wenner, a young and willful Skipper learned a direct and pointed lesson: Being insubordinate can get you fired.

Regarding the annual ESPY Awards, taking place on July 17 at the Nokia Theatre, Skipper said the event has become a special night in which sports with entertainment converge in the heart of the entertainment world. “I’ve never met an athlete who didn’t want to be an entertainer or an entertainer who didn’t want to be an athlete,” he said with a chuckle. For one night, the stars from both camps will be temporarily aligned, as Mad Men’s Jon Hamm hosts while the spotlight shines on some of sport’s brightest talent.

John Skipper

John Skipper

President | ESPN

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