All Eyes on ESPN’s Flagship

Jimmy Pitaro
Pitaro, an affable executive, has adroitly handled the various challenges of leading the business during a platform shift—laying off popular talent, leaning into gambling, and managing the changing power dynamics with leagues. Photo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
John Ourand
June 17, 2024

All the way back in 2008, when the streaming business was just a glimmer in consumers’ eyes and cable television remained perhaps the greatest economic model ever conceived, ESPN outbid Fox by $100 million to win the rights to college football’s Bowl Championship Series, the precursor to today’s CFP. Of course, ESPN won those rights against a mere broadcast network: These were the halcyon days of the brand, which collected billions of dollars in carriage fees from cable and satellite companies that couldn’t live without its channels. ESPN reinvested the revenue in everything from live rights to gleaming new sets, from bold-faced talent to worthy editorial projects like Grantland and 30 for 30. A better flagship product increased the value of the business, in turn.

There’s no need to recount the reality checks of the intervening decade and a half: cord-cutting, the rise of new platforms and players, and a new multiplatform economic reality that relied on capital optimization. Linear is still a great business for ESPN, which commands a higher fee from distributors than any other channel. But the decline from 100 million households to 70 million has necessitated the financial and strategic flexibility of the Jimmy Pitaro era. Pitaro, an affable executive, has adroitly handled the various challenges of leading the business during a platform shift—laying off popular talent, leaning into gambling, and managing the changing power dynamics with leagues. And, starting next year, he will finally find out what life will be like outside of that cable bundle.