ESPN’s Skipper: ‘We are responding to change’

ESPN President John Skipper

Following a period of subscriber losses and layoffs, ESPN made its annual pitch to advertisers this morning, promising change for the better.

The Disney-owned network’s event, held at its traditional venue, the Minskoff Theatre in Times Square, began with a New Orleans jazz funeral procession (a curious choice, some noted on Twitter). It went on to deliver a few mild surprises, programming-wise, and its usual serving of on-air personalities, athletes and mascots.

Longtime morning partners Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic of Mike & Mike, it was revealed, are splitting up. Golic and Trey Wingo will pair on a new ESPN Radio show that will be simulcast on ESPNU, while Greenberg will launch a new morning show on ESPN starting in January. As a tease for his new show, Greenberg interviewed tennis star Serena Williams onstage during the upfront.

ESPN President John Skipper, who skipped the usual post-upfront huddle with reporters, struck upbeat notes during his brief on-stage appearance. “Sports engenders optimism, so it follows that we at ESPN are optimists,” he said. The network “is making changes from the most dramatic position of strength” in the wake of laying off more than 100 staffers earlier this spring. ESPN has lost millions of video subscribers in recent years, falling below 75% of U.S. cable households as of January, as increasing numbers of consumers shave or cut the cord.

ESPN is fully alert to this trend, Skipper assured media buyers, noting that the network is offered on all new skinny bundles, including Hulu and YouTube, the latest to reach the market. Changes at ESPN, he emphasized, will go far beyond the programming lineup. Skipper detailed plans for ESPN to emphasize total audience in its dealings with advertisers, noting that ESPN overall reached more than 210 million Americans last fall. Starting Oct. 1, as Variety reported before the presentation began, the network’s live streaming numbers will also include viewers who watch ESPN or ESPN2 programming with the same “ad load” as traditional TV broadcast.

The new approach should lift viewership numbers substantially. ESPN says live-streaming and out-of-home viewing that comes via cable and satellite increased overall audience 12% in the first quarter and 18-to-34-year-old numbers shot up 18%. And those numbers don’t include viewing through the ESPN mobile app.

SportsCenter, the longtime anchor of the network’s schedule, continues to be retooled as social media and online sources threaten the traditional dominance of highlight-driven sports TV programming. Greenberg’s New York-based show, featuring rotating co-hosts and guests, will air from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. each weekday on ESPN, while SportsCenter will air live on ESPN2.