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ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro talks plans for NBA, F1, Big Ten, betting and more

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Jimmy Pitaro is a diehard Latest York Yankees fan. It’s an affiliation the ESPN chairman wears proudly and one which has been passed down like a family heirloom. Pitaro’s childhood dog, Pags, was named after the George Steinbrenner-era third baseman, Mike Pagliarulo, who hit 105 home runs over six seasons in Latest York from 1984 to 1989. He says his mother to today refuses to look at the Yankees in the sector because she believes that nothing good can occur when her team shouldn’t be on the plate. His sister, Lara Pitaro Wisch, possessed the identical sports passion: She grew as much as be the overall counsel of Major League Baseball.

As a part of a 50-minute interview last week — a conversation that covered the whole lot from ESPN’s interests in retaining the NBA, Formula One and Big Ten rights, to how ESPN sees sports gambling as a part of its company heading forward, to Pitaro unequivocally saying ESPN would like to broadcast soccer’s World Cup again — I asked Pitaro if he would trade his current gig for the overall manager job of the Yankees.

“No, I wouldn’t take it,” Pitaro said. “But when I had another job on this planet, I believe I might say yes. I’m within the job that I grew up wanting. After all, (being a part of the Yankees) is a detailed second.”

In case you are a sports fan, what Pitaro thinks and the way ESPN proceeds forward can have an enormous impact in your sports consumption. Listed below are a ton of excerpts from our conversation, and you’ll be able to hearken to the whole interview here. Pitaro was the guest this week for my Sports Media Podcast.

On whether Pitaro sees any scenario where ESPN wouldn’t have a portion of the NBA’s next media rights contract given ESPN’s long history in the game

Pitaro: I sure hope not. It’s an incredibly necessary property for us. We also see that property as ascending — younger demographics. At once I believe they’ve more parity than we’ve seen in a protracted time. We see young stars who’re beginning to catch on within the zeitgeist. We’re incredibly excited concerning the NBA. We also like what we’ve done. We’re very joyful with our team each in front of and behind the camera. I’m talking games. I’m talking about our studio programming.

That being said, do we’d like to proceed to innovate? (NBA commissioner) Adam (Silver) and I actually have talked about this. Yes. Are these alternative broadcasts that we’ve done solid? They absolutely are. Can we should be doing more of them? Can we should be interested by more innovation around the first broadcasts? We do. We are able to’t just sit idle here and be complacent. I do know that there’s some discussion across the (rankings) comps to 2019, but we’re more than happy with our numbers for the NBA Finals, especially if you compare them to the past few years. Our sales team has been very joyful with our rankings performance. We now have an amazing relationship with the league, and I really need it to proceed. Now, we have now a while here. We still have three seasons left. So there’s no urgency. But we absolutely would love to increase our partnership with the NBA.

On the prospect of the NBA taking premium content to a direct-to-consumer product comparable to Apple or Amazon

Pitaro: Well, we hope that’s us. After we sit down with the league, we hope that they’re open to us having ESPN+ as a component of that conversation. By the best way, not only ESPN+. It could possibly be Hulu in addition to we did with the NHL. But could I foresee them bringing other partners to the table? After all I could. In case you have a look at what Apple and Amazon are doing right away, they’re bidding and so they’re acquiring rights. So I’m assuming that they’re going to be a part of the NBA discussion similar to they’ve been a component of the NFL and MLS discussions and others. I might not be surprised in the event that they acquire some, but like I said, we’re all-in on the NBA.

On what being a part of the Super Bowl rotation means for ESPN as a company

Pitaro: Morale. Obviously, that’s not the one reason why we acquired the rights to 2 Super Bowls in our next deal. However it is considered one of those intangibles, considered one of those advantages. I believe that our employees were confused by the undeniable fact that we had these rights, we were really prioritizing Monday Night Football from a production perspective, from an investment perspective, and I believe folks saw the numbers that were reported publicly by way of what we were paying and folk were internally confused. So fast forward to today and our NFL team couldn’t be more excited.

Look, it’s huge for us. Everyone knows what the household rating is for the Super Bowl. However it’s beyond that. It’s about us expanding the partnership that we have now with the league and the league saying back to us, similar to you value the partnership, we very much value the partnership. So there are the intangibles. Then after all, there are the tangibles. In case you were to talk over with our sales team, they might inform you that we’re going to bring this to our existing sponsors, but that is a chance for us to usher in recent advertisers and recent sponsors to the discussion. They’re incredibly excited concerning the opportunity. On the macro level, this game is at all times within the zeitgeist. For us to have NFL rights but to not have that game, it hurt a bit internally at ESPN. We’re pretty enthusiastic about it.


Last month’s Miami Grand Prix pulled in 2.6 million viewers for ABC/ESPN, the biggest Formula One audience ever on U.S. TV. (David Mercer / USA Today)

On ESPN’s interest in continuing its rights take care of Formula One and Pitaro attending the Miami Grand Prix in May

Pitaro: We were already very enthusiastic about continuing this relationship. I did grow up in a household that was obsessed with motorsports. But I’d never been to a Formula One race, so it was a improbable experience. I wasn’t just within the conference room the entire time. I used to be on the market and it truly is a tremendous experience. I highly recommend it for anyone who has not been to 1. Look, we’re very enthusiastic about extending our take care of them and form of ending what we began here. It’s been an amazing run. You’ve seen it. The rankings have been off the charts great. This is unquestionably an ascending property. We imagine it’ll proceed to ascend. We now have Vegas coming up (starting in 2023), which we’re really enthusiastic about.

We’re within the thick of it right away. We’re in conversations. … (We) very much wish to stay on this business. But again, like the whole lot else, we’re going to be disciplined and we’re going to model this out and determine what it’s price. Then once we do this, we’re going to be as aggressive as we are able to. We take a variety of pride in helping to grow the property. After all, Netflix has contributed in a really significant way, and we love that. It’s a rising tide for everybody. But we do take a variety of pride in how this is finished on our own airwaves.

The final thing I’d say is we love the direct-to-consumer, the ESPN+ component here, so if we were to maneuver forward, we’d like to do something in that capability to the extent that they’re open to that. (Pitaro said he envisions races appearing on ABC and ESPN in any future deal.)

On ESPN’s interest in Big Ten football rights heading forward

Pitaro: Look, we have now an amazing relationship with the Big Ten. They’re actually an ascending conference. They’d a improbable season last yr. I’m not only talking about football. … They’ve been a giant a part of ESPN for a very long time now. It’s no secret. If (commissioner Kevin Warren) were on this podcast with me right away, he could be comfortable with me saying that we’re in discussions. That being said, similar to every other property, we enter these discussions understanding that we are able to’t get the whole lot and that we’re going to proceed with each discipline and thoughtfulness. So I can’t inform you how that is going to play out. We’re very much in it right away.

On whether ESPN’s SEC deal and added inventory impacts whatever future interest they might need within the Big Ten and Pac-12

Pitaro: So just in case anyone doesn’t know what the heck we’re talking about here. In 2024, we are going to add on to our game inventory with the SEC first pick (for football) every week. That has been the three:30 p.m. ET broadcast window on Saturdays (on CBS). As well as, we’ll have the conference championship game. We’ll get a further nine marquee SEC basketball games. We’ll have one out-of-conference SEC football game per team per yr. So once Texas and Oklahoma are in (in 2025), we’ll have 16 out-of-conference games. Within the 2024 season, it might be 14 games. That’s the deal we struck with the SEC.

The wonderful thing about that deal if I needed to summarize it with one word, it might be flexibility, meaning we’re now going to have a marquee game at 3:30 on broadcast on ABC but we even have the power to place marquee games Saturday night on ABC. We’re going to have SEC games across ESPN and across ABC for all three windows on Saturday. I believe if commissioner (Greg) Sankey were honest on this podcast right away, he would say that they’re really enthusiastic about being partnered with one enterprise where we are able to create that form of flexibility. But just getting back to your query, is there less inventory? After all there may be due to when this SEC deal kicks off in 2024. Nonetheless, we’ve been very thoughtful about this and there’s still loads of room for Big Ten and Pac-12. We’re pursuing each. … Nobody should misinterpret: After we did this SEC deal, nobody at ESPN said, OK, which means we’re walking away from one other conference.

Alabama Crimson Tide

SEC football moves from CBS to ESPN starting in 2024. Texas and Oklahoma are set to hitch the conference in 2025, making the package much more helpful. (Butch Dill / USA Today)

With reference to navigating the gambling space in relation to presentation, investment, consumer interface, and the way he sees the thought of real-time odds appearing on ESPN platforms

Pitaro: I’ll start with the undeniable fact that we’ve been on this space for some time now. This shouldn’t be recent to us. We now have had podcasts, we have now had segments on SportsCenter starting with Scott Van Pelt, we have now had dedicated sections of our dot-com, we have now studio shows which are airing specifically focused on betting, like Every day Wager. We now have a branded studio in Vegas on the Strip in partnership with Caesars. I can go on and on here. We closed deals slightly while back with each Caesars and DraftKings. We call them link-out deals where we’re providing contextually relevant links to third-party sites attempting to take the friction out of sports betting. So in the event you’re on a selected dot-com page and you must place a bet as you’re consuming our box rating, we’re attempting to make that as easy as possible. We now have an official odds relationship as well, in order that we’re putting odds on our networks now.

When it comes to how far we’re going to go along with odds, that’s TBD. I mean, we’re already doing it around games. We’ve done alternative broadcasts that focus specifically on betting. We’ve done it on the NFL’s side with the nomenclature being ‘Between The Lines.’ We’ve had an NBA alternative broadcast that’s betting-focused. I do know we’re going to be doing an increasing number of of that.

So the query for us is, what’s next here? Is there a next frontier? Here’s what I’ll inform you: We expect that this can be a growth opportunity for us. We expect we are able to potentially be doing more. I actually have talked slightly bit about this, not a ton, but what I’ll inform you is we have now done the research and it wasn’t too way back where folks were really concerned about what us being more aggressive on this space would mean for our brands. The research has come back and said it’s somewhat neutral within the Disney brand. It’s not going to assist. It’s not going to harm. But on the ESPN brand, it’s not only OK, it’s necessary. It’s something we should be doing. It’s something that our fans predict from us. So it’s not a “nice to have,” it’s just about at this point a must have. Meaning we should be serving the sports fan with what they’re expecting and taking the friction out of the method. When it comes to what which means for us and what’s the subsequent step, I can’t inform you. I’ll inform you that we have now opportunities to partner with different folks and be a bit more aggressive within the space. But we’re just not there yet. We’re being very thoughtful here. We now have to get this right.

On how in his position must be evaluated

Pitaro: Wow. How much time do we have now? Look, from considered one of my first interviews with Bob Iger and other members of (Disney) corporate, I talked about what I believed must be the ESPN priorities. Fortunately, I spent a few years competing against ESPN after which I spent a few years at Disney sitting on the leadership table right next to (former ESPN presidents) George (Bodenheimer) and John (Skipper). So I used to be pretty acquainted with the ESPN organization, with their strategy, by the point I got this job.

As I sit here today, the 4 priorities that I identified in the course of the interview process remain. Bob Iger knew and (Disney CEO) Bob Chapek knows today what those priorities are and I’d expect them to judge me based on how we’re performing in each of those categories. Now, admittedly, a few of it shouldn’t be objective, it’s subjective. After we self-evaluate, once we talk at my staff meetings each week, the North Stars are those 4 priorities and ensuring that the whole lot we do is connected back to them.

(Note: The 4 priorities are direct-to-consumer, audience expansion, quality storytelling and programming and innovation. Said Pitaro: “Those are what we call our vertical, our cutting across the whole lot. The horizontal is diversity and inclusion. You can say that there are five and we’ve been consistent on those 4 or five from the day I came.”)

On when he gets involved in negotiations with on-air talent comparable to Troy Aikman

Pitaro: I do what I can to let our talent team do their jobs, and so they’re really, really good at it. I’m just going to be completely honest with you: Sometimes after I become involved, it complicates things. It’s a game of telephone where folks hear me say one thing and it’s either misinterpreted or conveyed in a special strategy to our talent group. So me getting involved is definitely not helpful. That being said, I do have relationships with just about all of our talent. I used to be a lawyer after which I used to be the deal guy, so my background, I don’t know the way to say this, I could possibly be helpful here. However it’s for essentially the most part me saying to our talent, me saying to agents who I also know and have excellent relationships with, you might want to work with our talent department. For specifics, deal negotiation, deal points, dollars and cents, it’s just higher if that stuff is left to our talent department in order that there’s nobody getting involved that’s going to confuse or complicate things.

Now, after all, there are occasions and exceptions to that, however it’s very rare where I’m actually talking to talent and even an agent and talking dollars and cents. It is unquestionably the exception slightly than the rule. That’s today. Once I began 4 and a half years ago, I used to be more involved. A part of it was I used to be learning. A part of it was I used to be attempting to add value. But because the months and years go by, you begin to trust your folks more, you get to know your folks more, and still have experiences where you realize that you might not necessarily be helping things by getting involved. It’s a difficult balance since you never wish to say to a talent or an agent, “You’ll be able to’t talk over with me.” I hate that. One among the things I pride myself on is being accessible. I’ve learned this from lots of my bosses and mentors over time, if someone wants time with me, I’m going to make myself available.

On the intersection of sports and politics and navigating that as an organization when a person worker desires to offer commentary as a citizen, especially in a really politicized and divided time

Pitaro: So, look, these are complicated times. There’s no science here. There are not any easy answers. What I’ll inform you is our mission is to serve the sports fan. That hasn’t modified. That long predated me. Serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere. It’s hard to try this. It’s hard to fulfill consumers’ expectations on a each day basis across platforms. We’re the place of record. When something happens within the sports world, people tune into us. They trust us. In case you have a look at our brand research, the love and trust for our brand has actually gone up in the course of the pandemic, and we feel really good about that. We take a variety of pride in that, but with that comes even higher expectations. So our mission stays to serve the sports fan.

Now, to your point, yeah, there may be an intersection between sports and politics, sports and society, sports and culture, whatever it may be. We’ve been consistent that we’re going to cover that intersection. I believe the difference now’s that that intersection is occurring day by day. So we’re attempting to strike the balance and make sure that that we’re still serving our fans’ needs, we’re meeting their expectations. On top of that, what I might say is we’re not perfect. We’re going to make mistakes. There are occasions when things are going to be said on our air or on social platforms where there wasn’t complete internal alignment. We regroup, we learn, we attempt to recover due to that. We wish to say over here “slightly bit higher day by day.” I believe we’re higher today than we were yesterday.

Over the past few years, we’ve learned a ton and it hasn’t at all times been easy. Are there times when our talent have veered away from sports on our air, on our platforms? They’ve. But from my perspective, from leadership’s perspective, a variety of this has been not about politics. It’s been about humanity. For us, we have now our values. If our folks are speaking from the guts consistent with our values, we’re OK with that. Now, again, with them understanding, with the oldsters behind the scenes understanding, that we are able to’t lose sight of the undeniable fact that we’re here to serve the sports fan.

On balancing declines in cable subs with big increases to ESPN+ and a growing direct-to-consumer business — and what a super ESPN might seem like in 2027

Pitaro: The rationale you don’t have a date on the (linear) flagship being direct-to-consumer is because we don’t have one. It’s that easy. We don’t have one. The rationale why we don’t have a date is because these parallel paths that you simply referred to are going quite well for us today. Yes, the normal ecosystem has been very helpful to us and today stays very helpful to us. At the identical time, we’re investing in direct-to-consumer ESPN+. I believe on our last earnings call we announced 22.3 million subs (for ESPN+). That’s significantly ahead of where we thought we could be at this point. The rights that we’re acquiring for ESPN+, the content that we’re creating for ESPN+, the library that we’ve collected that’s exclusively on ESPN+ … that’s all working.

So these two paths make sense to us because we have now on one side folks who’re still very much engaged with DirecTV or Comcast and we should be there. We should be serving them. You furthermore may have fans who’re consuming sports content on their phones or tablets, so if you must authenticate, you’ll be able to get flagship. … We’ll proceed to accumulate rights that enable us to proceed to advance each of those platforms, meaning traditional and digital.

In case you have a look at the eight or nine deals that we’ve done over the past two years — I believe it could be the best stretch within the 43-year history of this place just by way of rights acquisitions and (ESPN president of programming and original content Burke Magnus’) team has had a tremendous couple of years — the common theme here is acquiring content for traditional and digital. That’s going to proceed because we see each working for us today. So to your query of 2027, what’s going to seem like? I don’t know if we’re going to have (a linear) flagship available. I can’t say we’re not. I can’t definitively say we’re. We’re these numbers on a month-to-month basis. Our commitment to the sports fan is that we’re going to proceed to follow you. Because the sports fan moves an increasing number of to a digital platform, a direct-to-consumer platform, you’re going to see us moving an increasing number of content that way. But today, having these two properties, each traditional and digital, it just is smart for us.

On an important piece of knowledge about ESPN that comes across his desk every week

Pitaro: Rankings are necessary. Engagement. Time spent. Unique users. ESPN+ subs. In the combination, it’s just how often our fans are engaging with ESPN on a each day basis. I’m sure 20 years ago the main target was almost entirely on traditional (TV) rankings. Fast forward to today and I’m getting regular reports on what number of engagements we have now on social platforms, what number of unique users we have now across ESPN digital properties, what number of users we have now on the ESPN app, what number of energetic paying subscribers we have now on ESPN+. All of those are necessary. But I’ll inform you that traditional television rankings are still very, very necessary to us. They still get a ton of attention from the media. But even beyond that, we have now a fairly aggressive sales team that’s still doing a improbable job at selling traditional television.

On what number of emails he averages a day

Pitaro: Several hundred. Because you’ve to recollect, oftentimes I’m a part of the Disney conversation. Things which are happening at Hulu, things which are happening at ABC, things beyond just ESPN. So at the very least several hundred and by the point I am going to bed every night, I’m aware of the whole lot. I try to answer the whole lot. I live by the unread email icon.

The Ink Report

1. Nice sports media-centric Fathers Day piece by my colleague, Brittany Ghiroli: Women in sports media on the dads who shaped their sports fandom.

1a. With permission from Sports Business Every day managing editor/digital Austin Karp, the below chart is the NBA Finals viewership trend since 2013. Said Karp: “While Warriors-Celtics was well below the typical for lots of those matchups before the pandemic, the NBA Finals averaged its highest share of the U.S. TV audience in five years. What does that mean? The general TV-watching audience continues to say no — whether its news, sports or entertainment programming. But among the many remaining U.S. audience, sports is getting an even bigger piece of the pie.”

2. Episode 215 of the Sports Media Podcast features Michael McCann, a legal analyst and senior sports legal reporter at Sportico and a Professor of Law on the University of Latest Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, where he’s director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute. On this podcast, McCann discusses why coverage of the intersection and sports and legal has increased multifold; how he distinguishes between his legal read on something versus how he might feel morally about it; Jack Del Rio from a sports law vantage point; PGA Tour suspensions of LIV golfers and what legal fallout may come of that; the brand new reporting that found DeShaun Watson booked massage appointments with at the very least 66 different women from fall 2019 to spring 2021; whether the Browns can void the Watson trade in the event that they desired to; Johnson v. NCAA, which is before the Third Circuit, and why this case is amazingly necessary; at the very least 12 states enacting laws banning transgender students from participating in sports teams at public high schools and what which means legally; the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and what recourse players have on media compensation; and more.

2a. Excellent idea by Demetri Ravanos of Barrett Sports Media to do a podcast on how the fathers of Mike Golic Jr, Wes Durham, and Spike Eskin played roles of their being a part of the sports media business.

2b. The media company Just Women’s Sports signed a partnership with the National Women’s Soccer League to distribute NWSL highlights from each the present and past seasons.

3. On Tuesday (10 p.m. ET), HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel will feature a profile of Chris Evert, the tennis great and ESPN broadcaster, who’s battling ovarian cancer. Evert let Real Sports film her chemo treatment and meetings with doctors and went in-depth on how the 2020 death of Evert’s sister, Jeannie, from ovarian cancer, has guided her now as she faces her own treatment. The reporter for the piece is Mary Carillo. The producer is Nick Dolin. It’s price watching.

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• The town crier. By Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post.

• Self-documenting and self-branding have gotten basic to all types of work. By Sophie Bishop of Real Life Magazine.

• Dom Phillips, journalist who chronicled Amazon deforestation, is dead at 57. By Matt Schudel of The Washington Post.

From Christopher Flavelle of The Latest York Times: Because the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Utah Faces An ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb’

• Big Dairy, Long a Power Player in Oregon, Faces a Climate Change Crossroads. By Ramona DeNies of Portland Monthly.

Death in Ukraine: A Special Report, via The Latest York Times.

• He’s considered one of Guatemala’s last independent judges. Will he be forced to flee too? By Jeff Abbott and Kate Linthicum of L.A. Times.

• Tokyo Vice Scene-Stealer Show Kasamatsu Is the Quintessential Michael Mann Cool Guy. By Paul Thompson of GQ.

• The Crypto Party Is Over. By Carrie Driebusch and Paul Vigna of The Wall Street Journal.

• Loans got me into journalism. Student debt pushed me out. By Carrington J. Tatum of MLK50.com.

• Reeling Black Residents Decry Years of Little Investment in East Buffalo. By Omar Abdel-Baqui and Joseph De Avila of The Wall Street Journal.

Sports pieces of note:

• A minor league announcer reported an assault, and ‘Ultimately, it hurt me.’ By Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic.

• Everybody Loses within the PGA-LIV Golf Schism. By Kevin Clark of The Ringer.

• The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer and Matt Pentz solve American soccer’s oldest mystery: the disappearance of Wee Willie McLean.

• A High-Powered Legal Fight Is Brewing Over Deshaun Watson’s Impending Suspension. By Andrew Beaton and Louise Radnofsky of The Wall Street Journal.

• Book Richardson, coach who pleaded guilty in FBI’s college basketball probe, breaks silence. By Seth Davis of The Athletic.

• When Women’s College Basketball Needed to Select: AIAW or NCAA. By Mark Bechtel of Sports Illustrated.

• How Commanders’ Ron Rivera became ‘guardian angel’ for cancer patients. By Jeff Howe of The Athletic.

Recode’s Peter Kafka interviews Bill Simmons.

• Developers Embrace Passion for Pickleball. By Seth Berkman for The Latest York Times.

• The Sounds of Late Night Chess Around Latest York City. By Julia Carmel of The Latest York Times.

• For Jim Harbaugh, Lane Kiffin, coaching was inevitable. For other sons of coaches … not a lot. By Christopher Kamrani of The Athletic.

(Top photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)

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