Manti Te’o is crazy or stupid, and very possibly both. At present, the only thing the 14 people in an ESPN conference room can agree on is that, for good or ill, the story of the Notre Dame defensive standout and his imaginary dead girlfriend is going to eat up the first quarter hour, give or take, of the evening broadcast.
It’s an overcast morning at ESPN’s home base in Bristol, Conn., one day after the sports site Deadspin broke the news about the preternaturally gifted Te’o, a fearsome inside linebacker in the mold of a Jack Lambert or Ray Lewis. While details of the story remain obscured by Te’o’s silence—it will be days before he sits down for his first interview—not to mention the sheer, unprecedented weirdness of it all, suffice it to say that the Heisman runner-up has some ’splaining to do.
It turns out that Lennay Kekua, the 22-year-old girlfriend around whom Te’o rallied the South Bend faithful like some sort of distaff 21st century George Gipp, didn’t actually die on Sept. 11, 2012, from complications related to leukemia. That Kekua didn’t succumb to cancer is largely a function of her being a fictional construct.
Jack Obringer, the senior coordinating producer of the 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. editions of ESPN’s flagship program, SportsCenter, is running herd on the morning editorial meeting, and while there is probably no end to the number of stories he’d rather pursue—a Notre Dame alum, he’s still stinging from Alabama’s 42-14 rout of the Fighting Irish in the BCS national title game—the Te’o saga is simply too big to push into the margins of the broadcast. A potboiler that touches on nearly every murky corner of the American experience (Sex! Death! Football! The Internet!), this is a story that has more legs than a bucket of KFC.
But after it becomes apparent that an on-camera Jeremy Schaap interview has been nixed by Te’o’s agent, it seems as if one of the few promising leads may be a “get” with Alexandra del Pilar, a verifiably extant woman who is believed to have begun dating the football player in December. All told, 12 minutes are devoted to Te’o and yet it still seems as if very little has been resolved. “What’s our goal with this?” sighs a senior staffer who holds the classic news-meeting pose: arms crossed at chest height, right ankle balanced on left knee. “What are we trying to get at here?”
When the Te’o talk at long last gives way to chatter about that night’s Miami Heat-Los Angeles Lakers clash at the Staples Center, a pen-joggling producer in the back of the room erupts into applause. “Yay, a game! Finally!” he cracks, earning his own round of cheers. “The TMZ portion of the meeting is over!”
Some 80 miles to the southwest as the crow flies, John Skipper is drumming his fingers on the desk in his office on Manhattan’s West 66th Street. In his capacity as president of ESPN Inc. and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, Skipper spends maybe 30 percent of his working hours in New York, and yet the room is so sparsely appointed that it almost looks as though he’s renting by the month.
A tall, donnish man with close-cropped silvery hair and an accent with roots in the Carolina hill country, the 57-year-old Skipper carries himself with the air of a classics professor who also coaches the varsity basketball team. One of the few tokens that hints at his position as head of the world’s most powerful sports media brand is a sketch that hangs a few feet away from a wall-mounted HD television set; in the careful hand of a very young child, a basketball-playing dog leaps over the legend “AIR JORDOG.”
One year after officially taking the reins from longtime ESPN chief George Bodenheimer, Skipper allows himself a gentle joke at his own expense. “We have very good senior people in place. It’s pretty much the same management team, and I’m very pleased that we’ve gotten through one year and I haven’t messed it up,” he says. “I tell people on the [Bristol] campus when I run into ’em, ‘I know what you’re thinking, and I’m just as surprised as you that I’m still president.’ ”
Don’t let the folksy demeanor fool you. Skipper knows the business upside-down and backwards, inside and out.
“The way ESPN negotiates their rights deals reflects Skipper’s philosophy,” says a veteran sports-media consultant who has brokered more than $20 billion in college deals for ESPN. “Time was, they did a deal with a conference, they wanted to own everything. Now it’s a matter of quality over quantity—except for the sort of major events like the BCS, where they’ve really put their stake into the ground.”
Not only has Skipper negotiated rights packages, he also makes sales calls with blue-chip clients. “Look, it’s the variable in our business, right? We have distribution agreements that are generally long term and they define what we’re going to get paid, so the one way we can have a better year is if we sell more ads,” Skipper says. “So it behooves me to be involved in it because … that’s the biggest upside we have.”
A word about those distribution deals. With an average carriage fee of $5.26 per sub per month, the ESPN flagship alone stands to rake in as much as $6.23 billion this year. Factor in an estimated $1.9 billion in ad revenue and the network generates north of $8 billion, per SNL Kagan estimates. (Incidentally, the average sub fee for a U.S. cable network is one shiny quarter. In other words, ESPN’s affiliate rates are effectively 21 times that of the industry standard.)
While operators are forever sounding the alarm on rising sports costs destabilizing their business model, no one seems to balk at forking over ESPN’s monthly surcharge. In fact, Skipper’s affiliate team has over the last two years inked long-term renewals with Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cox, Charter, Cablevision, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse, all of which were sorted out without the usual run of public brinksmanship or service interruptions.