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ESPN's Tumultuous Year

Dec 22, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 5:28 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The author of a history of ESPN once called his book "Those Guys Have All The Fun." At the moment, it seems like ESPN isn't having any fun. The president resigned to manage substance abuse problems. Before he left, he oversaw two rounds of layoffs and numerous political controversies throughout 2017. So we have brought in the author of that history, James Andrew Miller, to talk about ESPN now. Hi there, Jim.

JAMES ANDREW MILLER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to play some tape that shows how hard the news was for some ESPN employees that their boss, John Skipper, resigned. We're going to hear Dan Le Batard. He is an ESPN radio host responding to the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN LE BATARD: This person has created everything that exists here at ESPN for us. And so every success that we've had - I mean, I didn't want to work for ESPN. I wanted to work for this man, OK? And so I'm just sort of shocked and hurt and scared.

INSKEEP: How long was John Skipper in charge of ESPN, and what did he do?

MILLER: He was there for five years as president, but he was there beforehand as - he had a job as head of content. And prior to that, he was at the magazine. But I think what Dan is speaking to is that, whether or not you agreed with John Skipper, he was an incredibly engaging person. He has this infectious enthusiasm for content. And so this is not just your typical media executive. I think that somehow Skipper was able to make many, many, many different people feel like they had a strong connection to him.

INSKEEP: When you were watching ESPN, was there any particular feature of the programming that allowed you to say, yeah, that's John Skipper - that's his signature?

MILLER: Sure. People who may have watched the "30 For 30" documentary series and "O.J.: Made In America," the Academy Award winning documentary, and "The Undefeated" and "FiveThirtyEight" - some of these things would never have been done by other executives because they don't necessarily register high on the revenue scale. Yet those were the kind of things that Skipper did. He was able to play big ball and small ball at the same time.

INSKEEP: Why, under his leadership, was ESPN having to lay off people at a time of economic growth?

MILLER: The fact that 13 million households over the past several years have decided to cut the cord - that's not because they don't like John Skipper. That's because you can do things on Apple TV or you're tired of paying for something that you never watch. And so as a result - look, ESPN gets about 7 bucks a month for each of those households. So you can do the math very quickly. That is a significant blow to their revenue stream.

INSKEEP: And it doesn't matter what they're putting on TV if people are not watching TV the same way and, effectively, not shoveling money towards ESPN in the same way.

MILLER: Absolutely. In fact, let's just take their biggest franchise, arguably, "SportsCenter." You know, when I was growing up - I mean, it was, you know, Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick and we - you know, when we come back from commercial, we'll tell you who won the Dodgers-Mets game. And we have our phones now. We don't need to wait till 11 o'clock for "SportsCenter." What's the value proposition to that? And they've been wrestling with that.

INSKEEP: How comfortable has ESPN been with political controversy in this past year?

MILLER: Kryptonite.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

MILLER: You know, it is a bane to their existence because they like to keep sports in capital letters. They don't want to get into that minefield. They were dragged into it by certain people who thought that when they saw a gay football player kissing his partner at the NFL draft or when Colin Kaepernick is talking about his protests and...

INSKEEP: The discussion about the American flag, you mean, and whether to kneel for the national anthem and that sort of thing?

MILLER: Exactly.

LE BATARD: I mean, there was, particularly in 2017, a grey area where sports and politics were overlapping. And as a result, lo and behold, all of a sudden, you have the White House briefing room saying that Jemele Hill, one of the co-anchors of "SportsCenter 6" should be fired because she did a tweet saying that Donald Trump was a white supremacist. So those kinds of things. I mean, they don't just make ESPN carsick. They consider it to be a serious threat to their brand identity.

INSKEEP: Have they figured out how to deal with it?

MILLER: They're trying. It's a work in progress. They want distinctive personalities, yet at the same time, they don't want them to speak about their own personal views about things. So it's a very, very difficult balancing act. They are climbing Everest on a cold day in their shorts.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) James Andrew Miller, journalist who wrote a book about ESPN and also hosts the podcast "Origins." Thanks very much.

MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.