ESPN president John Skipper did a featured one-on-one interview to kick off the 17th annual NeuLion Sports Media & Technology Conference in New York Wednesday, and he pulled no punches when discussing the company’s critics. The general discussion about ESPN recently has involved their increasing rights payouts and decreasing subscriber revenue (leaving them with over $3 billion to make up annually), their parting with big names like Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock, and their September layoffs of up to 350 key personnel, suggesting the Worldwide Leader is facing some hard times, but Skipper said those are “false narratives”:
Despite declining numbers of cable subscribers to ESPN and recent layoffs of approximately 300 employees, Skipper said he “really likes the hand we have,” saying repeatedly the company has been assigned with “false narratives.” “We do not have a narrative problem. We don’t have a narrative of declining usage at ESPN, and we are not retrenching,” Skipper said, citing in part ESPN’s sports industry record digital metrics of more than 94 million people and 10 billion minutes of consumption in September, as well as ESPN’s status as the most-watched U.S. cable channel.
“We are adding viewers on other platforms to supplement our performance on TV. What we have is an internal narrative of continued dramatic success.” While Skipper called the recent layoffs “the most difficult week of my tenure,” he bristled sharply at the idea that the departures of personalities such as Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann represent a talent drain for ESPN. Skipper particularly shot back at the suggestion that Simmons did not receive sufficient internal support and promotion for Grantland. “It is completely inaccurate to say that Bill Simmons and Grantland didn’t get enough support,” he said.
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