By Cindy Boren and Rick Maese
ESPN President John Skipper resigned from the network Monday, telling employees in an email that he's struggled with a substance addiction for many years.
Skipper has been the network's guiding force in a tumultuous period, helping it secure television rights to some of the sporting world's biggest franchises and figuring out a plan to steady the ship amid changing viewership habits that resulted in a dramatic drop in subscription numbers in recent years. Despite these challenges, Disney had reportedly just signed him last month to a contract extension that was supposed to keep him at the helm of ESPN through 2021.
"I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction," Skipper wrote to ESPN employees in an email. "I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem. ... I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down."
Skipper, who also served as co-chairman of the Disney Media Networks, said he discussed the matter with Disney executives "and we mutually agreed that it was appropriate that I resign."
"I join John Skipper's many friends and colleagues across the company in wishing him well during this challenging time," Bob Iger, the Disney chairman and chief executive officer said in a statement. "I respect his candor and support his decision to focus on his health and his family."
Skipper's departure is immediate, and he'll be replaced in the interim by George Bodenheimer, who previously served as ESPN's president from 1998-2011 and also as the network's executive chairman until May 2014. Bodenheimer will serve has acting chairman for 90 days, ESPN said in a statement, will help Iger identify a permanent replacement.
Skipper, who turns 62 on Tuesday, came from a publishing background and joined ESPN after stints at Rolling Stone and US, which is now called Us Weekly. He started at ESPN in 1997 as senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine and was elevated to company president in Jan. 1, 2012.
In the 2011 ESPN oral history "Those Guys Have All the Fun," Jann Wenner, the longtime Rolling Stone publisher, described Skipper as a well-liked executive, adept at work and play.
"He was fun to be with, he would sometimes smoke pot with me, and he's got that wry sense of humor, and that devotion to music," Wenner said.
Skipper has played a big role in growing ESPN into a brand that was much bigger than a simple cable network, and his fingerprints could be found on almost everything ESPN undertook. Despite revenue concerns and subscriptions losses, which has resulted in hundreds of layoffs the past couple of years, Skipper had committed the network to billions of dollars in rights fees, entering into long-term agreements with Major League Baseball, the NBA, the WNBA, the College Football Playoff, the U.S. Open tennis tournament, a host of major college conferences – the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, American Athletic Conference and Mountain West – as well as the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls.
"We think those rights are the greatest assets we have, which allows us to navigate any environment," Skipper explained at 2016 conference. "We are going to be able to use those rights to continue to launch new businesses, create new platforms, new content and continue to grow."