Upfronts 2016: Skipper Says ESPN Still Has ‘a Little Swagger’ Despite Sub Losses

Network chief says out-of-home and multiplatform ratings make total picture rosier

While ESPN’s subscriber losses have contributed to recent Disney investor angst, network president John Skipper told reporters after ESPN’s upfront presentation he sees plenty of reason for optimism.

“We’re quite encouraged by many of the discussions we are having with new distributors, over-the-top distributors, and new packages,” Skipper said. “We’ve gotten some real traction with distributors like Sony [PlayStation Vue] and Sling and others. We’ve said repeatedly, we like our hand. ... We think we still have a little swagger. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as being in the crosshairs [of Wall Street skeptics]. But we’re going to continue to perform.”

Asked if ESPN was currently positioning itself for a stand-alone OTT offering, Skipper offered a flat “No.”

The comments came after the company’s annual pitch to media buyers, held in its traditional home at the Minskoff Theatre and complete with the trappings of Broadway in the form of original music featuring Hamilton stars Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. (“It’s great to have the real cast members of Hamilton with us this morning,” said Ed Erhardt, president of global sales and marketing, in a dig at NBC’s Jimmy Fallon-as-Hamilton opener on Monday.)

The smoothly choreographed, 90-minute prelude to ABC’s afternoon session revolved around the theme “the speed of live.” Shrewdly edited highlights playing on a movie-theatre-sized screen, underscoring ESPN’s role in events such as the rise of NBA MVP Steph Curry, the last stand of tennis great Serena Williams, and the dominance of college football. On-air talent mingled with top-tier athletes including Brett Favre, Chris Paul, Bryce Harper and Noah Syndergaard, and brand execs from Voya and Colgate-Palmolive extolled the virtues of ESPN’s reach, especially with millennial men. (Scott Van Pelt’s midnight edition of SportsCenter even out-draws late-night rivals like Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert among men 18 to 34. “We beat them all and I’m as shocked as you are,” the host said.)

Read more at broadcastingcable.com.