Disney Digital veteran James Pitaro named ESPN President

The Walt Disney Co. has picked James Pitaro, chairman of its consumer products and interactive division, to be the next president of ESPN. He replaces John Skipper in what is perhaps the most powerful post in sports media.

“Jimmy forged his career at the intersection of technology, sports and media, and his vast experience and keen perspective will be invaluable in taking ESPN into the future,” Robert A. Iger, chairman and chief executive of Disney, said Monday in a statement announcing Pitaro’s appointment.

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ESPN, the country’s leading national sports network, has been without a permanent president since December, when Skipper, who had led the company since 2012, suddenly resigned, citing a substance addiction. A former ESPN president, George Bodenheimer, has been serving as the acting chairman since Skipper’s departure.

Pitaro, 48, joined Disney in 2010 after nine years at Yahoo, where he rose to vice president for media and ran the company’s sports division. He began as a co-president of Disney Interactive, then a stand-alone business unit consisting of gaming, Disney.com and other websites. After the company’s social gaming division underperformed, Pitaro’s co-president, John Pleasants, resigned, giving Pitaro control of Disney Interactive.

In 2015, the interactive division was combined with Disney’s much larger consumer products division, and Pitaro was left in charge of the entire department after Leslie Ferraro, a co-chairwoman, resigned in 2016. Disney’s consumer products division is the world’s largest licenser of consumer products, but a comparatively small division within Disney.

For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Pitaro’s division contributed just $4.8 billion of Disney’s $55.1 billion in revenue, and $1.7 billion of Disney’s $14.8 billion in operating profit. The division’s revenue represented a 13 percent decrease from 2016, but Pitaro pointed to a robust film slate, including “Black Panther,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” which should boost consumer products and interactive media, as the division is now called.

He is assuming control of a much more substantive chunk of the company. The media networks division of Disney, which is largely ESPN, earned $23.5 billion in revenue and $6.9 billion in operating profit in the same fiscal year.

“Some of the best experiences of my professional career were working with the sports business,” Pitaro said in an interview. “I always knew in my heart I would return. This is a dream come true.”

He is taking over a very different ESPN than Skipper did six years ago. The network is facing a number of challenges as consumers continue the trend of cord-cutting, jeopardizing the traditional business model for pay television companies.

At its peak in 2011, ESPN had more than 100 million subscribers. It now has fewer than 87 million. The value of Disney’s stock has fallen 7 percent during the past year, a drop analysts largely attribute to concerns about ESPN’s future.

Pitaro on Monday did not lay out a new strategy for reversing these declines or for finding new revenue streams. He praised what ESPN had done in recent years, including a plan to launch a redesigned ESPN app that gives all consumers access to scores and highlights, and gives subscribers the ability to stream the networks.

“You fast forward to today, and the ESPN team has put together a very smart strategy,” Pitaro said.

The app, which will launch in April, will also include ESPN Plus, a new streaming service that will cost $4.99 a month and will stream more than 10,000 live events each year.

ESPN Plus is powered by BamTech, the Major League Baseball Advanced Media spinoff; Disney paid $2.6 billion to acquire 75 percent of the company. ESPN Plus is also a trial run for another stand-alone streaming service Disney will offer next year, which will feature movies and television shows from the Disney, Pixar and Marvel libraries.

“I come from the digital world, and spent most of my career building and investing in new media products,” Pitaro said.

Pitaro is the first person to become president of ESPN without having previously worked at the company since Bill Grimes took the job in 1982.

One of Pitaro’s biggest tasks will be to help weave BamTech’s technology and employees into both ESPN and Disney, as the two companies increasingly share technology and other aspects of their business.

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“Bob runs his staff meetings as truly team meetings, and so I have had the opportunity to chime in and participate in strategic discussions of the future of ESPN over the last eight years,” Pitaro said of Iger. “I don’t see that changing.”

Disney recently agreed to pay $52.4 billion to acquire most of Twenty-First Century Fox’s assets, including its 22 regional sports networks. The deal is pending regulatory approval. ESPN also faces an important round of negotiations with pay television distributors who have long complained about the high price of sports programming.

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