Here's who's most likely to succeed John Skipper at ESPN

  • The somewhat widespread belief that ESPN is a dying franchise has held back parent company Disney's stock for several years.
  • A new executive — replacing the recently departed John Skipper — could turn around that perception.

Former ESPN President John Skipper.
Mark Lennihan | AP
Former ESPN President John Skipper.

When John Skipper made his unexpected announcement on Monday morning that he would be resigning from his post as President of ESPN, the speculation about who would succeed him began almost immediately.

And why not?

For 2.5 years now, the biggest overhang on Disney's stock has been the narrative of "ESPN is dead" as it continues to shed linear subscribers. For 20 years, ESPN has been super-charging Disney's stock price as its profitability has increased through rising affiliate and advertising revenues. Its success in the cable bundle world made Wall Street most nervous about the general decline of linear subscribers.

That's why Disney's announced deal last week to buy the 21st Century Fox assets for $52 billion was so important. It changes that narrative completely for Disney's stock for two reasons:

  1. It lessens ESPN's profitability as a percentage of Disney's overall combined revenues and;
  2. It provides ESPN with so much more sports content that it further strengthens ESPN's case that it is the dominant sports brand in the US (and now much more internationally than before), and that viewers will have to continue subscribing whether they are in the linear or Over-The-Top (OTT) worlds.

Skipper was tremendously well-liked within ESPN. However, he was slow to get up to speed on how to best communicate ESPN's strengths in the face of the "ESPN is dead" narrative. That improved a lot in the last year.

With his sudden departure, Disney has the opportunity to select a new President who can further continue to win over Wall Street's trust that he/she has a solid plan for keeping ESPN's profits high and helping them navigate into the new world of OTT.

Who will that person be?

John Ourand of Sports Business Daily has a good short-list of internal and external candidates. Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal have also chimed in with their ideas. I recorded a podcast yesterday discussing the various candidates.

If you were going to order up an ideal next ESPN President from central casting, he or she would have the following characteristics:

  • Strong leader
  • Well-liked inside the company, by executives at Disney in Burbank, and by Wall Street
  • Someone with relevant successful media experience, as well as success in digital/mobile/social/OTT from the tech space at name-brand companies
  • A good communicator who can spin the new "ESPN is dominant in sports" narrative to investors credibly
  • Someone who knows how to manage effectively an organization with thousands of employees rather than has only worked at companies with employees in the dozens

Of course, there won't be any silver bullet candidate who checks all the boxes, and the bias will always go to an internal candidate over an external one (all things being equal). That said, here are the names who have been mentioned so far as well as one I think should be in the mix.

  • Justin Connolly, Connor Schell, and Burke Magnus. All report in to John Skipper today. Connolly has received probably the most attention of the three so far as a potential successor. All three are very talented in their different areas and all are longstanding employees of the company.
  • Kevin Mayer. Currently head of strategy for Disney. Worked very closely with Bob Iger on the Fox deal and the BAM Tech deal before that. Has been with Disney for a long time and received many words of support last week from Iger for his role in the Fox deal. He'll be very important to now integrating those assets, assuming the deal gets regulatory approval.
  • Jimmy Pitaro. Currently the head of Disney's Consumer Products group and was head of Disney Interactive before that. Well-liked within Disney. Worked at Yahoo as head of media before Disney. Well-connected with a bunch of smart digital people in the Valley.
  • Sean Bratches. Lost out on the top job at ESPN to John Skipper several years ago. Was head of sales and marketing at ESPN before that. Now runs F1 Commercial business and is based in London. Probably the top outsider for the job now. Was well-liked by George Bodenheimer who is now acting head of ESPN for the next 90 days.
  • David Preschlack. NBC Sports Regional Sports President.
  • David Berson. CBS Sports President.
  • Mark Shapiro. Co-President of WME-IMG but worked as a top exec at ESPN back in the early 2000s.
  • Christine McCarthy. Current CFO for Disney.
  • Sheryl Sandberg. Would she leave the #2 job at Facebook? I'm not sure. I've previously said I think she'd be a strong contender to succeed Iger one day. She's on the Disney board. But I've heard recently in the last six months that she's very happy at Facebook and wouldn't want to leave. Would she be willing to take the ESPN job before competing for Iger's job in 2021? I'm not sure she'd want to give up what she's got.
  • Jeff Weiner. I'll add this name to this list. Jeff is the current head of LinkedIn which is owned by Microsoft. I've previously said that I think he'd be a great candidate for the Disney job one day because he started his career at Warner Brothers. I've heard that Jeff could one day be considered a successor to Satya Nadella at Microsoft. But if he wants to replace Bob Iger, turning ESPN into a big success in the next 4 years could be the ticket to get that job.
  • George Bodenheimer. He's younger than John Skipper. Even though he's been out of the top job at ESPN for 6 years now, could he be convinced to come back permanently?

To me, I think almost all these names could be successful in the top ESPN job. A Sandberg or Weiner would probably most impress Wall Street at first. The internal names (including former ESPNers) would likely go over well in Bristol, Connecticut, where ESPN is headquartered.

So, let's turn to the question of who is most likely to get the job. I'm going to say Kevin Mayer. Here's why.

I believe Bob Iger likes him a lot and really trusts Kevin. Mayer is smart, capable, and has done the big transformational deals that we think of when we think of Disney. But he's always been a strategy guy at Disney and those people don't get the top CEO job without some successful operating experience. If Kevin wants the top job - and few people climbing the corporate ladder for decades don't - he knows that he needs to go run something.

The ESPN job isn't a slam dunk but, if done well, it would be a feather in the cap for that person and make them a strong contender to succeed Iger (although there might be others like James Murdoch, as well as outsiders, contending for it). If Mayer goes to Bristol and does well, he would have a great resume for the CEO job.

If he takes the job, pehaps Bodenheimer could be convinced to remain an active Chair at ESPN to help coach Kevin in the new operating role for the next few years.

If Mayer wants the job, I suspect that Iger would want to support him getting it. We'll probably find out sometime in the next 90 days.

[Affiliates controlled by Eric Jackson have long positions in DIS]

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