Veteran Walt Disney Co. executive James Pitaro has been named president of its lucrative but challenged sports media division ESPN.
Pitaro, 48, has served as chairman of Disney’s consumer products and interactive division since February 2016 and has been with the company since 2010. He replaces John Skipper, who departed ESPN in December to deal with a substance addiction issue.
“Jimmy is a talented and dedicated leader with the right strategic vision, relentless drive and passion for sports required to lead the stellar ESPN team at this incredibly dynamic time,” Walt Disney Chairman Robert Iger said in a statement. “Jimmy forged his career at the intersection of technology, sports and media, and his vast experience and keen perspective will be invaluable in taking ESPN into the future.”
According to his corporate biography, Pitaro has overseen Disney’s physical and digital products, experiences and content across more than 100 categories.
Pitaro inherits a unit that is still a major profit center for Disney but has struggled with continued cable subscriber losses and escalating fees paid to sports leagues. A number of high-profile controversies, layoffs and star departures have given the network the perception of being in a state of perpetual turmoil.
Pitaro’s experience in his most recent post likely influenced the decision to move him to ESPN, which is about to launch a stand-alone direct-to-consumer streaming video service offering live sporting events on demand without a cable subscription. The service, called ESPN Plus, will be available to subscribers for a monthly fee of $4.99.
The new service is an attempt to capture some of the viewers without a pay-TV subscription. Fees from cable and satellite companies are a major source of revenue for ESPN, and the trend toward cable cord-cutting has slowed its growth in recent years.
Sports media consultant Lee Berke is not surprised that Disney went with an executive with digital experience. Before joining Disney in 2010, Pitaro was at web services provider Yahoo, where he helped develop the strategy for the company’s sports platform.
“ESPN is undergoing substantial changes, particularly with the pending launch of ESPN Plus,” Berke said. “They need a talented, creative leader in place who can take ESPN through these changes, but already possesses a substantial understanding of the business. Pitaro checks all the boxes.”
Laura Martin, a financial analyst for Needham & Co., agreed that ESPN’s new leader is a good fit with Disney’s acquisition of BAMTech, the technology company it acquired from Major League Baseball.
“Generally, Disney is clearly pivoting toward a more aggressive digital strategy and this executive has really deep digital credentials, which should give them a better ability to execute that strategy,” she said.
Martin added that putting Pitaro, an Iger favorite, in the position of turning around a major asset at ESPN sets him up as a future candidate for the chairman’s seat at Disney.
“Disney’s biggest value gap is that it must have a succession plan,” she said. “If he is a potential successor to Iger, that makes him a more valuable asset to Disney than just running ESPN.”