John Skipper, ESPN President and Co-Chairman of Disney Media Networks, has an unmistakable southern accent. It is the type of drawl that makes you sit up straight, lean toward the edge of your seat, and hang on his every word.
He grabs your attention.
His tenure at ESPN began in 1997 as the senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine. A few years later, oversight of ESPN.com was added to his vitae, and in 2003, a promotion to executive vice president ensued. In 2005, Skipper became ESPN’s executive vice president of content. Here, he guided the creation, programming and production of ESPN content across all media platforms.
2012 marked the beginning of his most influential role with the network. Since taking over the reins, ESPN signed long-term agreements with Major League Baseball, the college football playoff, and AT&T T -0.43% U-Verse, just to name a few. This year, FORBES listed ESPN as one of the world’s most valuable brands in sports with an estimated brand value of $15.0 billion, which is up from $11.5 billion in 2012.
It is safe to say that Skipper has devoted his entire career in sports to mastering the art of capturing audiences.
His most recent challenge is advancing ESPN’s women’s sports audience. Skipper and his team TISI +2.2% are driven to increase women’s sports viewers and advertisers, and leave them wanting more. Specifically, his attention and talent is focused on espnW which is “ESPN’s first dedicated content and digital business initiative designed to serve, inform, and inspire female fans.”
Team espnW does not operate in a vacuum, and theWomen + Sports Summit presented by Toyota is an example of their commitment to grow the brand with the assistance of countless women in sports leaders.
A sample of the 2013 participants include: Anucha Browne, Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships, NCAA; Sharon Byers, Senior Vice President, Sports & Entertainment MarketingCoca-Cola KO -0.49% North America; Donna de Varona, Olympic swimmer and member of the IOC Women and Sport Commission; Laura Desmond, Global Chief Executive Officer, Starcom MediaVest Group; Janet Evans, Olympic swimmer; Julie Eddleman; North America Brand Operations Marketing Director, P&G; Julie Foudy, Olympic soccer player and television analyst; Michelle Kwan, Olympic figure skater; Kathryn Olson, CEO, Women’s Sports Foundation; and Merritt Paulson, Owner and President of the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and Portland Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“It was our intention to build upon the legacy of ESPN and women’s sports and to take a leadership position and focus our efforts on what we could do to drive women’s sports forward,” Skipper said about the fourth annual espnW summit.
“This is a unique venture where we invite friends, partners, athletes, and leaders in women’s sports to come and have a discussion and help us think about what we might do next. It is one of the few events where we end up with a set of priorities, which we want to take action on.”
An example of that action is the extended partnership between ESPN and the WNBA. At the 2012 summit, WNBA President, Laurel Richie, made a powerful impression on the attendees by urging them to consider what they could do to get behind the WNBA and help move the league forward. Skipper proudly announced that ESPN stepped up to the challenge and earlier this year announced a long-term television partnership with the league.
“We got behind it, and ratings were up this year. This is the best year we’ve had,” said Skipper. “We want to continue to show this leadership and do more for women’s sports. We believe in it. We believe in supporting female athletes and female executives, and we want to be leaders in that.”
In the words of legendary UCLA softball coach and espnW advisory board member, Sue Enquist, “There is something to be said about a company that makes an investment not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it recognizes that it will translate into a meaningful business decision down the road.”
Skipper and ESPN are leading that charge.
During the espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Forbes.com caught up with Skipper to discuss ESPN’s role in elevating how women see sports in their lives, how espnW exposes the best and brightest female athletes to the world, and the challenges associated with this mission. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Alana Glass: Why is the espnW: Women + Sports Summit an important event to host year-after-year?
John Skipper: We decided about three years ago that we wanted to establish an overt leadership position for ESPN Women’s Sports. We have been the leader in televising women’s sports for years, and we do more women’s events on television than the rest of the sports business put together. We wanted to have a directed initiative, effort, and brand that allowed us to make our efforts more coherent and consistent.
The summit is a high-profile, highly visible, once-a-year gathering of leaders across different categories of women’s sports. Whether it is the leagues, marketers, athletes, media, to talk about the state of women’s sports. Where are we and how do we continue to press forward with growing women’s sports?
AG: Recently, I learned that the day after ESPN was founded in 1979, the network aired women’s sports the next day. Is it challenging to get the message across to fans that ESPN has been committed to women’s sports since day one?
JS: When we started espnW, it clearly had an advocacy position and a leadership position. We wanted to advocate for women’s sports. That was what the 40th anniversary of Title IX allowed us to do. Establishing a public brand, is clearly about us trying to put a stake in the ground that we are leaders here.
And of course, I’ll refer to the legacy. We have been [broadcasting] women’s sports for a long time. Now it is just a more concerted public effort to continue to do that and to be more of an advocate. We also want to do it because we think this is not only good business, it is good externally. Obviously, we also think it is good internally. We are trying hard to diversify our workforce and to make sure that people know that women have every opportunity at ESPN.
AG: How does espnW fit into ESPN’s overall business model?
JS: For most of ESPN’s history, our proposition to advertisers has been about reaching young men. That has been the business advertising platform. We believe that because of Title IX, women have participated in sports at significantly higher and higher levels. That has translated into more and more women also watching sports. Now, it is not a one-to-one relationship. Just because women play basketball, does not mean they watch women’s basketball, but they might watch men’s basketball. Or they might watch NFL. So in terms of business, it is about ratings.
Women watch more and more sports, and we want those women to believe that ESPN is their home to watch sports. As women watch more sports, marketers will use sports to reach women. Traditionally, they have not used sports in a lot of ways to reach women. That opens up new advertising categories for us.
AG: How has the corporate and business community responded to espnW and the summit?
JS: What we are trying to create with the summit and this engagement is to move marketers toward understanding that sports is a great way to reach women. It is also the fact that the women they reach through sports tend to be more active, more engaged, and tend to be higher socioeconomic groups, so it is a good place. We want more advertisers to move forward, to understand the power of sports to reach women, and to engage with us on that.
AG: What are the challenges or hurdles associated with your goals?
JS: The biggest challenge we would love to crack are the ratings for women’s sports. We saw good movement this year with the WNBA, which we are happy about. We have seen good numbers, for instance, women’s college softball. But we would like to see that all fans, men and women, have a greater interest and respect and avidity for women’s sports. We would like more people to watch the WNBA. I think that it is probably the hardest thing we have to figure out how to crack here.
Good Night Sports Fans,