The evolution of John Skipper and the genesis of a deal
Certainly the promise of hefty remuneration is one way to coax a high-profile sports media executive to return to the landscape from which he fled under strange and abrupt circumstances, some five odd months ago. But monetary gain alone does not seem like a sufficient explanation for John Skipper’s recent reemergence in the public eye.
Skipper’s most recent job, after all, was a lofty one in the sports world: President of ESPN.
In late-December, Skipper, 62, made the surprising decision to step down from that post, citing a years-long substance abuse habit. The timing of his announcement was curious, to say the least. Just a week before giving notice, Skipper held an uplifting assembly, with more than 400 of his staffers in attendance, telling them, “At the end of this meeting, I want you to be confident about the future of ESPN. I want you to feel proud about working here and I want you to feel that your best efforts are needed for that future and to feel that pride.” In the era of cord-cutters and illegal streaming sites, ESPN, like any other cable network, has struggled to hold on to its subscribers, and Skipper seemed especially poised and ready to help steer the company through this tumultuous period. His resignation, no doubt, caught many observers off guard.
Indeed it would turn out that Skipper’s rationale for leaving was a bit more complicated – and bizarre – than what his initial statement suggested.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter a few months later, Skipper disclosed what had prompted his resignation. He had unwittingly put his family and colleagues at seedy, unknown risk: He had been embroiled in a cocaine extortion plot.
However that was five months ago, practically an eternity for those dwelling in the media realm.
Last Thursday, on a rooftop garden 30 floors overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, boxing’s most enterprising promoter, Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn announced a staggering eight-year, one billion-dollar rights partnership with Perform Group, a British sports media company owned by billionaire Len Blavatnik, to bring exclusive fights to Perform’s subscription streaming service, DAZN.
“We have by far the biggest rights budget in boxing,” proclaimed Hearn. “We’re going to be ultra-competitive. This is open season for great fighters in the U.S. If you’re out there, if you don’t have a promotional contract, if you’re a world-class fighter, we want you.”
The deal calls for 16 fights to be staged by Matchroom Boxing in the U.S. (and 16 in the U.K.) each year, in a gutsy move to corner a piece of the U.S. live sports market before, one figures, the Silicon Valley titans make their inevitable play for the same target. It is a deal, in other words, to seize the future. “We believe all sports will be on digital platforms in three to four years,” stated Perform Group CEO Simon Denyer. The first boxing card is scheduled to take place this September.
After finishing their opening remarks, Hearn and Denyer gathered together to pose for photographs. Joining them on stage was none other than Skipper, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a royal blue blazer, and making essentially his first public appearance since December. It was his fourth day on the job as Perform’s executive chairman; Skipper started that Monday.
“My role is based in New York,” the gregarious Skipper said in his Southern drawl. “Simon and I are going to figure out how to divide up the duties and run the company.”
Though DAZN has cultivated successful rights deals in Japan, Germany and Canada, they are largely unknown in America. Skipper ostensibly will be tasked with overseeing the company as it makes its big push into the highly competitive sports media territory in the U.S. As for taking credit for the boxing deal, Skipper demurred.
“Simon had already done this with Eddie, so I have nothing to do with it,” Skipper said, chuckling, “other than applaud it because it is a really smart deal.”
A month ago, Skipper had never even heard of DAZN. Then Denyer, whom Skipper met before but hardly knew, reached out to the North Carolina native to have breakfast. That meeting was positive, which led to Skipper taking another with Blavatnik, who, in addition to amassing his fortune through oil, aluminum and other heavy industries, owns the entertainment label Warner Music. “He’s a terrific owner and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to be a success,” Skipper said of Blavatnik.
In a span of three to four weeks, Skipper went from being oblivious of DAZN (pronounced “Da Zone”) to agreeing to lead its U.S. operations. “Yes, this came about very quickly,” Skipper noted. “I’m a big believer in what (Perform) is doing and I like the people.”
He paused before adding, with a grin and twinkle in his eye, “And I kind of like flipping from being the incumbent to being the insurgent.”
Skipper, a serious reader, is as literary minded as media bigwigs come these days – his recent reads included the Ron Chernow biography of Ulysses S. Grant, a novel by Julian Barnes and poetry by Paul Muldoon, Frank Bidart and Louise Glück – so it was no surprise to listen to him point out the the irony of his new situation. After all, one of the last major deals Skipper presided over at ESPN was the multi-year agreement with Top Rank in 2017, to showcase boxing on all its platforms, including the recently unveiled streaming app ESPN+. In its first year, ESPN showcased Manny Pacquiao, Vasiliy Lomachenko and Terence Crawford, to name a few elite talents in the Top Rank stable who had hitherto been featured mostly on HBO.
Earlier that Thursday at the Lomachenko-Jorge Linares press conference, 20 blocks south at Madison Square Garden, Top Rank President Todd duBoef was asked if he believed Hearn’s new streaming rights deal would pose a threat to his own operations. He responded unequivocally by saying, “No, not at all. I think it’s good for boxing,” adding that the investment in streaming made by major players in the sport would help “reposition boxing” by extricating it from the grips of a decades-long hold by premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime. “We kickstarted this whole thing,” said duBoef.
History, however, suggests that congeniality has a short shelf life in boxing, which remains a poorly regulated and hopelessly fractured sport. DAZN and ESPN+, to name just two new ventures in the streaming sphere, will likely continue to carve up boxing’s limited territory, as they compete for the attention of the same viewers and the services of the same fighters.
Asked how he felt about potentially going up against his one-time partners, Skipper offered a diplomatic answer.
“There’s certainly room for more than one successful company,” Skipper said, despite Hearn’s “divide and conquer” speech earlier that afternoon. “Again, it would be inappropriate of me to disown guys who I believe in – (Top Rank CEO) Bob (Arum) and Todd. Of course I believe in ESPN. They will do very well. And we will do very well.”
Though ESPN had been, and continues to be, embattled by a dwindling subscriber base, Skipper was instrumental in putting forth bold initiatives (read: big bets) to ensure that the cable giant could stand a chance in the streaming rights field against equally determined and well-heeled competitors from across the spectrum: CBS, Turner, Silicon Valley and, yes, rivals from abroad like Perform. This much is certain: Whatever Skipper’s duties are at Perform, it will have none of the pressure that came with commandeering what many pundits believe to be the sinking ship of ESPN.
Now, the man who once held the reins of the most powerful legacy sports network finds himself on the outside fighting for the upstart’s cause. And boxing will be his first task amid the mad scramble for streaming rights.
“I believe in boxing,” Skipper said, grinning, as music blared from the speakers and champagne flowed into glasses. “I think boxing can come back but it needs to have more frequent fights about fighters that people care about. There needs to be a platform that people can see boxing consistently. It needs to get out the world of fights, every 14 months on pay-per-view, where nobody sees it and you have to pay $75 and have to invite your friends over.”