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ESPN’s Brave New World

James Pitaro, Chairman of ESPN.
James Pitaro, Chairman of ESPN. Photo: Steve Zak Photography/FilmMagic
Dylan Byers
May 19, 2023

Back in 2014, while Hollywood executives were still reckoning with the second- and third-order effects of the Great Netflix Disruption—and bracing themselves for the long, inexorable decline of their cable and network television businesses—Disney’s chief business strategist Kevin Mayer asked John Skipper, then the head of ESPN, to start testing pricing models for a hypothetical streaming service that would deliver the premiere sports channel directly to consumers. Even then, four years before the eventual launch of ESPN+—a relatively cautious, toe-in-the-water streaming effort carrying second-tier games—Mayer and his inimitable boss, Bob Iger, appeared to see the writing on the wall: live sports would eventually, inevitably go D.T.C. Fans would pay for what they wanted to watch, and a new generation wouldn’t put up with the inefficiencies and leaked value of the cable bundle.