ESPN CEO John Skipper (2nd from right)

I had the privilege of attending the 2012 Marketing Innovation Conference at Harvard Business School. After a day of invigorating sessions that covered topics ranging from haptic shopping to handling corruption in emerging markets, I was able to hear John Skipper, ESPN‘s new CEO, give the afternoon keynote. It was, in a word, interesting.

As a big fan of ESPN, I was excited to hear directly from the CEO about various practices, current innovation techniques, ‘cord-cutting’ controversy reactions and long-term goals – I wasn’t disappointed. Skipper was as open and honest as I’ve ever seen in such a setting and it was as refreshing as it was informative.

Though he previously served as the head of content, Skipper has only been the CEO since January. In his position, he oversees a small yet diverse executive team that is responsible for making decisions. Together they determine how Disney-owned ESPN will move forward. In fact, Skipper and company have almost complete decision-making autonomy since he has only been told ‘no’ a few times since assuming the top dog position.

NIKE of Sports News

I was encouraged to hear that ESPN, which owns a lofty 65% market share of sports news viewership, is focused on moving forward. In order to compete, the company always looks to innovate so they continue to grow and aren’t, as Skipper said, “nibbled to death” by competition.

The self-described Nike of Sports News, ESPN aims to move forward with intelligence, meaning they “want to be the best” at whatever new endeavors they attempt. For example, their decision to go into sports documentaries, through the popular 30 for 30 series instead of through sports dramas, in which they have no know-how, has been brilliant.

Another way ESPN has stayed innovative is through the WatchESPN app that is changing how and where consumers watch live sporting events, which remain the core of what ESPN offers. Skipper said the televisions, computers, iPads, smart phones, etc are “just screens” in that targeting one viewing segment is not the correct way to look at viewing options.

Skipper seeks to innovate through reformatting how sports news is presented through key programs like the ever-popular SPORTSCENTER. In fact, the forward-thinking CEO tasked the show’s current show-runner with focusing solely on finding new ways to present the news. For example, imagine if each game wasn’t covered in linear fashion but instead was presented from the perspective of say the winning shortstop or losing quarterback. Game changer?

Fans want quick highlights and frequently updated coverage but they also want to be intrigued and they love a good story. Whether this effort comes to any tangible fruition is irrelevant, what is is the ever-present innovation behind the idea that Skipper keeps at the forefront of his decision-making.

In addition to changing the internet advertising through eliminating rotating banners, targeting growth markets in Latin America, looking at mobile options, and staying innovative, ESPN also seeks to maintain its identity as an anything-but-premium channel. It benefits cable providers as well as ESPN to be a part of the cable bundle.

Innovate or get “nibbled to death”

I currently do not pay for this bundle as I did prior to being a grad student, but I’m sure, as Skipper seems to be, that ESPN is a service that is truly irreplaceable. I would love to smirk and disagree, but sadly no other company has all the assets across all the outlets that ESPN does.

That isn’t to say that ESPN is a perfect company, because I truly believe it has many issues. Though Skipper claims that the manner in which they cover news is fair and balanced, I don’t agree. I do believe that they attempt to separate the news from what is actually covered, but that is not good enough.

In my humble opinion, ESPN does cover a wide range of sports, but it only truly focuses on what it actually carries. I fear that with the recently rejected English Premier League (EPL) bid, ESPN will slowly begin to cover soccer even less. It is painfully obvious that ESPN will discuss and analyze events in excruciating detail that it covers or has a stake in, hello NFL, while always leaving side or more “fringe” sports to fall as they may. I hope I am wrong but just tune in to ESPN and tell me what you see covered…

My biggest problem with what ESPN, and Skipper in particular, are doing is the direction they are headed globally. Skipper described sports as national in nature and that they were, for all intents and purposes, pulling out globally. Having recently sold many of their shares in Asia, it appears the pull-out has begun. Add the EPL loss element and it seems all too true. What a waste, especially for the self-proclaimed worldwide sports leader.

I fundamentally disagree with Skipper’s notion that ESPN is essentially for American eyes only. It is that way because ESPN focuses the majority of its efforts, expertise and focus on American sports and leagues. If  the network wants to continue to grow, it has to go global. If it doesn’t, it will be the official “in” that competitors like NBC need. With the successes of the global sporting events like the Summer/Winter Olympics, the World Cup or global sports like soccer, tennis or golf, ESPN is making a huge mistake.

Ultimately, I do believe that Skipper is the right captain for the ESPN ship, but he needs to find his global compass or he risks losing the continual first-move advantage that his company has maintained through continual innovation in the world of sports coverage. ESPN is a United States icon that cannot be replicated, but it should be a global one.

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