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The Skipper

A year into helming ESPN's $8 billion sports empire, John Skipper knows success means staying ahead of the competition

THE FOX IN THE HEN HOUSE

Back in Bristol, SportsCenter anchor Jay Crawford watches as ESPN The Magazine writer Gene Wojciechowski gives his assessment of the Manti Te’o circus. The sportswriter reaches a verdict of not guilty by reason of extreme gullibility. “He’s not the most socially adept person,” Wojo says. “I mean, it’s not like he’s dating Miss Alabama.” Speaking to a producer on the floor above the studio, Crawford agrees: “I think he bought it, man. I think he bought it, hard.”

On-air talent has provided one of the more reliable conduits for information related to the not-so-secret launch of Fox Sports 1, a new cable net many think has the best shot at challenging ESPN’s hegemony. “We have a lot of people under contract who are being contacted [by Fox]—and that’s perfectly acceptable, but it allows us to find out more about what they’re planning,” says Skipper.

Because News Corp. has a track record of disrupting the status quo (consider the Fox broadcast network and Fox News Channel), Skipper in no way dismisses the threat posed by yet another 24/7 cable sports outlet. At the same time, he doesn’t seem to believe that a successful run by Fox Sports 1 will automatically take food off his plate. “We take them very seriously and they have a chance to create a successful business,” he says. “Now, that successful business doesn’t necessarily mean that anything particularly dramatic will happen to us. We have a pretty unprecedented collection of live sports rights and we have significant digital businesses. So Fox can have a very successful business and none of that changes anything on our end.”

If that smacks of a certain kind of hollow bravado, it’s worth noting that Skipper doesn’t play the usual percentages games.

“John had this idea about sort of filling the gaps between the live-event programming and the news and studio programming with great storytelling,” says Connor Schell, vp and executive producer of ESPN Films and creator of the 30 for 30 documentary series. Along with ESPN’s resident multihyphenate Bill Simmons, Schell and Skipper discussed developing films that would tap into the prevailing nostalgia for sports figures of the 1980s and ’90s while offering a sense of discovery for younger fans. Says Schell: “He didn’t think about 30 for 30 from a ratings or business perspective—he charged us with making great content that the company would be proud of. And rather than sweat out the overnights, he’s just saying, ‘Let quality be our best marketing here. If these are really good, they’ll cut through.’ ”

Since then, the doc series has proven to be a critical and ratings success, winning a Peabody Award and drawing a record 3.6 million viewers on Dec. 8, 2012, with the 90-minute celebratory Bo Jackson biopic You Don’t Know Bo.

When asked again about how he thinks Fox Sports 1 will measure up, Skipper says he anticipates an August launch. But again, he doesn’t seem overly concerned. “Can we be disrupted? Sure. But it’s not easy to be disrupted if you don’t allow somebody to flank you,” Skipper says. He pauses a moment before finishing his thought: “We’ve been doing this for 33 years and so you literally can’t ask for a bigger head start. As long as we don’t let anyone else get a market share lead in mobile, or in apps or in something new that comes along, we’ll be hard to displace. Competition is great. But maybe it’s the other guys who should be worried.” —anthony.crupi@adweek.com; Twitter: @crupicrupicrupi.

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