Handicapping Candidates for ESPN Top Role

New network chief will likely possess old school negotiating talent, digital savvy
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ESPN and The Walt Disney Co. will be busy over the next few months sifting through candidates to replace former ESPN president John Skipper, who abruptly resigned Monday due to what he said in a statement was a “substance addiction.”

While former ESPN chief George Bodenheimer will step into an interim role to help run the network, assist in the search for a replacement and help in the transition, Skipper’s decision comes days after Disney announced a $66.1 billion purchase of assets from 21st Century Fox – including regional sports networks – and roughly three months before the planned launch of its direct-to-consumer offering ESPN Plus.

With those milestones looming, Skipper’s replacement will have to possess a number of talents. Not only will he or she have to be a savvy negotiator – ESPN has said about 50% of its pay TV carriage comes up for renewal before 2020, including deals with Verizon at the end of 2018 and Charter in mid-2020 – but will also have to have experience in launching digital offerings as well as figure out how to stop the bleeding with traditional pay TV distributors.

ESPN has a history of looking within for its top executives – Skipper was a 20-year veteran of the network and Bodenheimer famously started out as an intern at the channel when he was in college (as a driver for NBA color man Dick Vitale). Here are a few possibilities, in  no particular order, according to reports and conversations with industry executives:

* Exec VP/Affiliate Sales & Marketing Justin Connolly. Connolly oversaw ESPN’s more recent renewal – with Altice USA – that was largely considered a win-win for both participants (Altice was allowed to shed ESPN Classic while ESPN got bigger minimum carriage guarantees). Connolly is well regarded in the company and has had several roles – he launched SEC Network and has key affiliate sales experience.

* ESPN EVP, Content Connor Schell is executive producer and co-creator of ESPN’s Emmy, Oscar and Peabody Award-winning documentary series 30 for 30 and served as producer and executive producer for its Oscar winning documentary film, OJ in America.

* EVP and Managing Director of ESPN International Russell Wolff has been with the company since 1997 and with Disney expected to gain control of European satellite company Sky as part of the Fox deal, his expertise could be key. 

* ESPN EVP programming and scheduling Burke Magnus could also be among those internal candidates considered – among his duties is the oversight of recently acquired BAMTech, the engine for ESPN’s and Disney’s direct-to-consumer offerings.

* On the Disney side of the house, Senior Exec VP/Chief Strategy Officer Kevin Mayer (where since 2005 his team has been tasked with finding and developing new business models and technologies) and Disney Consumer Products chairman James Pitaro (who also served a stint as president of Disney Interactive, where he turned around the digital operation) are two names that have been mentioned.

* Former ESPN executive Sean Bratches, now Formula 1 managing director of commercial operations, could possibly be lured back to the fold, as could NBC Sports Regional Networks PresidentDavid Preschlack, but sources say that is a bit of a longshot.

* At least two women could be considered for Skipper’s role, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg – who some say was being considered to replace Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger when he retires -- and ESPN EVP and chief financial officer Christine Driessen. Driessen has been with the sports network since 1985 and leads the team that has played key roles in obtaining multimedia rights for Major League Baseball, Monday Night Football and many other major sports.  

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