Disney Picks Company Insider James Pitaro to Lead ESPN

The Walt Disney Company has picked James Pitaro, the chairman of its consumer products and interactive division, to become the next president of ESPN. He replaces John Skipper in what is arguably the most powerful post in sports media.

“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,” Robert A. Iger, the chairman and chief executive of Disney, said Monday in a statement announcing Pitaro’s appointment.

ESPN, the country’s leading national sports network, has been without a permanent president since December, when Skipper, who had led the company since 2012, suddenly resigned, citing a substance addiction. The former ESPN president George Bodenheimer has been serving as the acting chairman since Skipper’s departure.

A lawyer, Pitaro joined Yahoo in 2001. He ultimately became the vice president of media and ran the company’s sports division before jumping to Disney in 2010. He began as co-president of Disney Interactive, then a stand-alone business unit consisting of gaming, Disney.com and other websites. After the company’s social gaming division underperformed, Pitaro’s co-president, John Pleasants, resigned, giving him control of Disney Interactive.

In 2015, the interactive division was combined with Disney’s much larger consumer products division, and Pitaro was named its co-chairman. Once again his partner, the co-chairwoman Leslie Ferraro, resigned, leaving him in charge of the entire division. Disney’s consumer products division is the world’s largest licenser of consumer products, but a comparatively small division within Disney.

For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Disney had $55.1 billion in revenue and $14.8 billion in operating profit. Consumer products and interactive media, as the division is now called, contributed $4.8 billion in revenue, a 13 percent decrease from 2016, and $1.7 billion in operating profit. Media networks, which is largely comprised ESPN, earned $23.5 billion in revenue and $6.9 billion in operating profit.

Pitaro is taking over a very different ESPN than Skipper did six years ago. The network is facing a number of challenges as consumers continue the trend of cord-cutting, jeopardizing the traditional business model for pay television companies.

In April, ESPN will launch ESPN Plus, a new streaming service that will cost $4.99 a month and stream more than 10,000 live events. ESPN Plus is powered by Bamtech, the Major League Baseball Advanced Media spinoff; Disney paid $2.6 billion to acquire 75 percent of the company. ESPN Plus is also a trial run for another stand-alone streaming service Disney will offer next year, which will feature movies and television shows from the Disney, Pixar and Marvel libraries.

Disney recently agreed to pay $52.4 billion to acquire most of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including its 22 regional sports networks. The deal is pending regulatory approval. ESPN also faces an important round of negotiations with pay television distributors who have long complained about the high price of sports programming.