ESPN's John Skipper on Thought Leadership

With the polarization of points of view around significant political and social issues, sports is a place where people can sort of talk about something together. And I think that is important to people. I think people want to have things where they don't have to worry that the guy next to him might reach over and grab him by the throat.
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I'm not going to pretend to be objective about John Skipper. I've worked for him for more than 15 years, still contribute as a reporter, and admire him. Seen him figure out the possibilities of cross-platform content long before other media executives. Seen him do deals with all of the major sports leagues, while not just supporting but expanding ESPN's commitment to investigative journalism that often scrubs those very business partners. Seen him drive explosive growth by creating a workplace culture that promotes, paradoxically, both entrepreneurism and coordination. And, he has a sense of humor.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, I introduced his one-on-one conversation with moderator Derek Thompson, who oversees business coverage as a senior editor at The Atlantic. The topic was, "Inside the Game: What Can Media Companies Learn from Sports?" As a prelude, I caught up with Skipper and got his thoughts on a separate but not unrelated topic, the role of sports -- and ESPN -- in society. ESPN is one of the partners supporting The Aspen Institute's Project Play (, a thought leadership exercise that aims to identify breakthrough strategies that can help sport produce more healthy children and communities.

Highlights from our conversation:

Tom Farrey: Sports - just a game or more than a game?

John Skipper: Sports, at this point I think, is fairly central to our culture. I mean, it's never been more ascendant in terms of the amount of attention it gets, the audiences it generates. I do think there's something about sports in that it's one of the few places where you can still be communal. With the polarization of points of view around significant political and social issues, sports is a place where people can sort of talk about something together. And I think that is important to people. I think people want to have things where they don't have to worry that the guy next to him might reach over and grab him by the throat. So, I think sports is quite important to society.

TF: Sports has been talked about as reflecting society. But it's grown so much as an institution, how much does it shape society today?

JS: Well, it's probably some of both. The fact that the NFL is the most important sport in terms of number of viewers is probably somewhat reflective of what we care about, how we want to watch. On the other hand, sports certainly leads as well, mostly through individuals. When a person reaches a certain stature, that person has the ability shape things a bit. I'm thinking of when the Miami Heat put their hoodies on in the Trayvon Martin case, and actually made a statement and sort of stood for something - something you'd like to see more often from today's athletes. That probably was a leadership role. By the way, the single best example of sports leading (the way) was the integration of our society. Jackie Robinson came along nearly 20 years before the Civil Rights Act.

TF: So how do you see ESPN's role in shaping society?

JS: We have a range of roles. You start with entertainment. Our job is to put games on that people care about. There's also giving scores, which is fairly rudimentary. Then there's the enterprise and investigative role where our job is to inform sports fans about people who aren't doing the right thing, and to make sure that somebody's uncovering issues related to concussions or steroids or bad behavior. I mean, you have a sort of interesting case now with Aaron Hernandez -- our role there is news. We're trying to sort out the narrative of what happened to Hernandez. We do a fair amount of long-form journalism where you're helping people understand the nuances of complicated issues.

TF: ESPN calls itself the Worldwide Leader in Sports. What does leadership mean?

JS: Leadership means a bunch of things. We want to be the leader in providing events that matter to fans. We want to be the leader in technology and figuring out new ways to present those things on new devices. We also want to be a thought leader. When we're doing investigations and reporting, we want to be thought leaders. We're a public company so we want to be financial leaders. And we want to be ratings leaders. Worldwide leader is meant to encompass the (notion) that we are fairly synonymous in the sports fan's mind with sports.

TF: How important is it to ESPN and the sports industry in general that more kids fall in love with sports? As you know, we sort have this nation of sports haves and have-nots. Some kids are fed sports with a fire hose in places like the suburbs where a lot of I live. Then you have places like inner city Detroit, or New Orleans, Native American communities where there's little access to sports.

JS: Well, there's participation and then there's observation. Everybody, because of the ubiquity of television and digital (platforms), has access to watch the game, even in difficult neighborhoods. So we care that kids fall in love with sports because they become spectators. But there's a more profound social issue, and that's that they have the opportunity to participate and play sports and fall in love with that. Every bit of knowledge we have demonstrates that there is a complete correlation between playing sports and success and potential for success. Playing sports is good for you physically, mentally, spiritually, psychologically.

We've got to figure out ways for more people to participate - and participate in a balanced way. I have two sons who played soccer, basketball, lacrosse and baseball from the time they were three or four years old, until now. Overwhelmingly, it was a good experience. We had some of the 'we need you not to play one sport' or 'we need you to (take a break) in the summer when we go on vacation.' That's a problem, but it's sort of a high-end, luxury problem to have. It's not nearly as profound in some ways as the millions of kids who don't have good facilities, good equipment, good teachers. We've also recently explored on Outside the Lines the problem of abusive parents, people forgetting that it's games and it's about physical well-being and team cooperation - and not just beating someone else.

TF: How do you see Aspen helping ESPN figure this out and be a thought leader in this space?

JS: For what we're trying to do on the thought leadership end, on the investigative and enterprise end, Aspen is a wonderful partner. It provides resources and a forum, and I think the brand helps invest the effort you make with a level of intellect and seriousness. It'll be a helpful partner in getting people from (Aspen's network) involved in this discussion. So we're very excited obviously about partnering with Aspen, starting on this issue of kids and sports.

TF: ESPN came along in 1979. In many ways, it's changed sports as we know it. How does ESPN leave the sports world better than it was given to ESPN?

JS: A couple of things. ESPN's most fundamental accomplishment is the availability for fans to see (games). I mean, it's hard to remember a world where there was just one baseball game on a week and one college football game a week. Now, if you're a fan, there's never been a better time. And ESPN, long before me, created that. Now, can we also do greater good? Yes. We want to take that position we have, the ubiquity of ESPN and all of its platforms, and take some of our platform and talk about significant issues that matter to fans and American society at large, including this one about kids and sports. ESPN in all of its success can provide a platform to do some good.

You can follow Tom Farrey on Twitter at @tomfarrey and The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program at @AspenInstSports

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.

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