“No one could have anticipated the challenges we faced in 2020,” Pitaro told a streaming audience of ESPN employees nationwide. “And it’s times like these where people are often judged. And I promise you that history will show that the people of ESPN delivered . . . and did so with grace and integrity.”
Chapek said he thinks Disney has managed through the past 10 months “with a sense of optimism” and “demonstrated unbelievable resourcefulness and creativity,” which underscores the Company’s culture.
“I think we showed tremendous flexibility and problem-solving ability to do our business as best as we could with the constraints that were given us,” said Chapek. “Of course, the NBA Bubble is the perfect example of that, where we worked across the company between Disney Parks and ESPN and the NBA in order to make that happen.”
Pitaro and Chapek touched on a wide range of topics from Disney and ESPN’s ongoing Diversity and Inclusion efforts to lessons Chapek has learned during the pandemic to some of his guiding principles for leaders and teammates alike. He spoke of his sports allegiances to his alma maters of Indiana University (undergraduate) and Michigan State University (graduate) as well as the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Cubs, adding, “I’m an avid sports fan and I’m sort of a College GameDay-addicted guy. I just love it,” he said.
Addressing Pitaro’s question of how ESPN fits into the greater Disney vision, specifically through the Direct to Consumer (DTC) lens, Chapek praised ESPN+ and its tremendous results so far.
“What DTC represents for us is critical in the area of sports,” he said. “ESPN+ is no longer a niche business. You’re dedicating so much first-run content and important content to ESPN+ that we’re essentially making that pivot as we are with the rest of the Company. ESPN is very aligned overall with where the Company is going. The consumer is voting with their pocketbook, and we see where they’re going, and they’re going hard to direct to consumer.
[Sports] is a marketplace that is thriving. . . it makes a difference. We’re the best at it, and we have the best people. You cannot deny the importance of sports, and you cannot deny the importance of ESPN. – The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek
“ESPN is the greatest brand in sports, we’ve got the best talent,” Chapek said. “[Sports] is a marketplace that is thriving. . . it makes a difference. We’re the best at it, and we have the best people. You cannot deny the importance of sports, and you cannot deny the importance of ESPN.”
Pitaro and Chapek spoke for 40 minutes, followed by 90 minutes of updates from leaders throughout Pitaro’s executive team with Senior Vice president, Multiplatform Storytelling and Journalism, Alison Overholt moderating discussions with (in order of appearance): Vice President, Human Resources Tonya Cornileus; Executive Vice President, Programming Acquisitions and Scheduling Burke Magnus; Vice President, ESPN+ Original Content and ESPN Films Brian Lockhart; Senior Vice President, Production and Chief of Staff to ESPN President Tina Thornton; Executive Vice President, Event and Studio Production & Executive Editor Norby Williamson; Senior Vice President, Production David Roberts; Senior Vice President, Production & Content Strategy Jill Frederickson; and Senior Vice President, Marketing & Social Media Laura Gentile.
Transitioning to the leaders’ updates, Pitaro, who held his first Town Hall with ESPN employees just after his hiring in March 2018 and later that year welcomed Disney Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board Bob Iger to Bristol, Conn., said he shared Chapek’s “excitement about what’s coming at [the Disney] Company.
“Likewise, here at ESPN, and for so many reasons, I feel optimistic about the year ahead,” Pitaro said. “At the same time, I’m also realistic about the business challenges we face. The changes we’ve seen over the last few months have, at times, felt sudden and difficult, but I can assure you this strategic business shift is something we’ve been building towards for years, at Disney and at ESPN.”
Pitaro reiterated ESPN’s ongoing priorities, “which were developed in early 2018 and continue to be very relevant today: Direct-to-Consumer, Quality Storytelling and Programming, Audience Expansion and Innovation – and, cutting across all we do, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, which continues to be our No. 1 focus.”
We deliver an exceptional experience for our fans and partners, and we have unparalleled reach across all our platforms. This will continue to serve us well in 2021 and beyond. – Chairman, ESPN and Sports Content The Walt Disney Company, Jimmy Pitaro
Looking ahead to the future, Pitaro recalled the words of Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey upon the announcement of the new deal.
Sankey said: ”We need to be attached with sophisticated [partners] who have all the assets,” when ESPN’s new agreement with the SEC was announced.
“I think that sums up who we are perfectly,” Pitaro said. “We deliver an exceptional experience for our fans and partners, and we have unparalleled reach across all our platforms. This will continue to serve us well in 2021 and beyond.”