You know ESPN’s stable of personalities—people like Mike Greenberg, Bob Ley, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Michael Wilbon, and, of course, Chris “Back-Back-Back-Back-Back” Berman blanket the family of ESPN networks. The headliners of popular shows like SportsCenter, Mike, and Mike in the Morning, Pardon the Interruption, and Monday Night Countdown talk to millions of fans every day. Powerful sports media personalities not only break the news, but they also make the news. On-air talent, writers, and producers help decide what reaches your eyes and ears while you get dressed in the morning, commute to and from work and browse the internet headlines at night. But even the most well-known media celebrities take cues from someone. The ESPN newsmaker you might not know has been setting the sports media industry agenda for some time now.
John Skipper, often referred to as the most powerful man behind the most powerful sports network, makes decisions that affect what’s beamed through our televisions, transmitted to our radios, and digitized in our web browsers. The highbrow title of ESPN President and Co-Chairman of Disney Media Networks was not preordained for John Skipper. The man at the helm of ESPN didn’t choose the “Executive” career card in The Game of Life. He isn’t a young, born-into-the-game hotshot adorned in flannels and a hipster beard. What’s left of his hair is grey, the color that closely matches many of his stoic suits. Skipper didn’t expect to win the job of guiding a major company into the new age of media; a love of literature coupled with a sharp mind led him down this path.
John Skipper has spent nearly 40 years finding ways to capture the attention of audiences. A bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree from Columbia University, both in English Literature, spurred his desire to bring news, opinions, and entertainment to the masses. His higher education focus was on personal interests and passion, as he explained to Sports Networker: “…what I cared about was literature, and reading and writing, so I did that… I didn’t expect to get into sports at the time. My interest was to get into publishing….” That love of publishing grew, as did his successes and responsibilities while navigating an exciting media career.
The early stages of John Skipper’s career were spent with Straight Arrow Publishing, much of that time at its popular magazines Rolling Stone and US Weekly. After these early successes, Skipper accepted the role of President and Publishing Director at Spin magazine, a chief rival of a former employer Rolling Stone. His stint at Spin led him to a new job at a company that would forever change his career trajectory. The Walt Disney Company opened its doors to John Skipper in 1990.
Before joining The Worldwide Leader in Sports, John Skipper served as an executive—first a vice president and later a senior vice president—with The Disney Publishing Group. His expertise in the world of publishing allowed him to manage an area of the company that dealt with Disney’s magazine, book, and licensing operations. That four-year run gave him a taste of the Disney corporate culture and served as a proving ground before his 1997 move to ESPN, a well-established Disney-Hearst Corporation joint venture.
ESPN is known for breaking news, reporting, and cutting-edge media technology and is a prime example of how to monetize big-time partner relationships. Attribute many of these victories to John Skipper. His first experiences with the company back in ‘97 were in familiar territory, as the Senior Vice President of a soon-to-launch sporting magazine. Skipper’s talent was quickly recognized along with the content and design of ESPN the Magazine—the mag won more than 20 awards during its inaugural year alone and remains one of the most well-read periodicals in the nation. That success brought Skipper an “executive” title and authority over ESPN.com at a time when digital media was on the verge of exploding. Under his guidance, ESPN’s digital and print divisions won demographics and became the industry standard in sports media coverage. Naturally, ESPN’s head honchos handed even more power to the North Carolina native.
In 2004, John Skipper became the Executive Vice President of Advertising Sales and ESPN Enterprises. While that title doesn’t sound nearly as impactful as one that runs the ESPN website or magazine, the promotion proved his booming influence within the company. Advertising drives ESPN revenues, so holding decision-making power in that space allowed Skipper to tangibly affect the bottom line. And leading the company’s ESPN Enterprises group allowed him the opportunity to develop new products and businesses leveraging the influential ESPN brand. After this brief stint, it was time to return to his roots as the master of content.
Once John Skipper accepted the role of Executive Vice President of Content, his clout within the company and across the industry was cemented. He became “responsible for the creation, programming, and production of ESPN content across all media platforms…”. Simply put, he oversees everything ESPN that fans consume. Over the last ten years, John Skipper has watched over the globalization of the ESPN brand, negotiated numerous content partnership deals, and strategically added to the network of ESPN-branded television channels, internet websites, and radio stations. And now, as President of ESPN and Co-Chairman of Disney Media Networks, he is the true face of ESPN, a global sports media influencer and a valued member of The Walt Disney Company’s executive team.
The moral of John Skipper’s story: do what you love, and the rest will follow.