ESPN’s Skipper Details New Digital Center; 3D Future Depends on Fan Demand

ESPN last week made headlines when it announced that its 3D network will cease operations at the end of the year, but ESPN President John Skipper told attendees at the B&C Sports Business & Technology Summit that, if consumer demand for 3D got to a high enough level, ESPN would get back into the 3D game.

John Skipper, president, ESPN

John Skipper, president, ESPN

“We learned how to produce an interesting 3D telecast, and it had a wow factor and looked interesting, but the fans just weren’t watching it,” he explained. “If there is demand for it, we would be happy to do it.”

He added that ESPN will now take a look at Ultra HD, the 4K format: “It is more analogous to the move to HD, and the 4K experience will benefit sports.”

Skipper also gave attendees a sneak peek at ESPN’s new digital center, which is currently under construction and slated to open early next year. The complete facility will measure 190,000 sq. ft., and a visual fly-through of the studio space showed a massive facility with a large central open space ringed with stages, giving new options for camera movement, dynamically cutting between stages, and more. It also allows for more rehearsing, as a goal is to do more storytelling.

“After a little more than 10 years, we are going to have a new feel, with a new graphics package and new sets for SportsCenter,” he said. “We’ve been planning it for three years. It is an important show for us. The intention is to use all of our technology, statistics, and get back a bit to the personality of the anchors.

“The temptation is to repeat things and, if there is a big story, to stick on it,” he continued. “We have had some appropriate criticism that, when we are on a story, it can sometimes feel relentless. So we want a little more variety and personality as we are proud to have a lot of diversity [among the anchors].”

Skipper also addressed the recent layoffs at ESPN, which have hit a wide group of areas within the organization, including production.

“We had not examined our organization in a long time, and we realized that we didn’t need as many affiliate sales staff and could also have a smaller programming staff,” he said of the elimination of more than 300 jobs. “This is the least pleasant thing you can do, but it was smart from the business side. And this is not retrenching. We will add jobs with the launch of the SEC Network and digital initiatives. And people asked why we didn’t just do the layoffs in one day? Well, we wanted to meet with every individual on outplacement and severance. There is nothing good about it.”

The launch of the SEC Network and college football was also a topic of discussion. The network deal with the SEC runs through 2034, and Skipper joked that interested competitors could check actuarial tables to see who in the industry will still be alive when the rights come up again.

“That deal speaks to our belief that live sports will be the most valuable property in media,” he added. “That is why we are tying those up long term.”

ESPN also has 14 more years on its deal with the ACC, but Skipper said a launch of an ACC network is not imminent. And, as if the popularity of college football is not high enough, he predicted that the playoff format will only increase it further.

“The popularity is certainly growing, but the biggest spurt is still in front of us because of the new playoff format,” he explained. “There will be a tremendous amount of interest in that.”

And speaking of sports that are growing in popularity, the 2014 FIFA World Cup from Brazil is poised to extend the ratings growth for a sport that seems close to a tipping point in popularity in the U.S.: soccer.

“We think the World Cup will dominate what sports fans are talking about from June 6 to July 6 next year,” said Skipper. “This will be our last World Cup for a little bit, and our intention is to leave the bar very high.”

Looking to clear that bar will be Fox Sports, which will launch FS1 this year, a 24/7 sports network that will compete with ESPN (and CBS Sports Network, NBC Sports Network, and the profusion of other 24/7 sports networks) for viewers.

“We have had competition forever, and plenty of competition is a good thing … because it makes us smarter,” said Skipper. “But sports is not a contracting environment. People are watching more sports, and we continue to grow our business. FS1 validates our business as live sports is ascendant.”

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