Connor Schell, ESPN’s top content executive, is expected to leave the company by the end of the year.
Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content, is making the decision voluntarily, said sources.
The split between Schell and ESPN management led by President Jimmy Pitaro is amicable, sources said. ESPN declined to comment.
Schell has been a creative force behind some of ESPN’s biggest successes, serving as a producer on the 2020 Michael Jordan docu-series, ”The Last Dance” and the Oscar-winning 2016 documentary, “OJ: Made in America.”
Schell’s pending departure is a “crushing blow” to ESPN, according to media analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed.
“As ESPN has tried to move away from live sports and expand content they own and control — nobody was more important to their future than Connor — this is a crushing blow but symptomatic of the secular decline of cable television,” Greenfield told Front Office Sports Nov. 8.
The surprise news of Schell’s departure comes only days after ESPN announced the worst job cuts in its 41-year history. The Worldwide Leader in Sports is laying off 300 workers, mostly behind-the-scenes production staffers, and letting 200 open jobs go unfilled.
The news also comes less than two weeks after Ryan Spoon, ESPN’s senior vice president of social and digital content, left the company to become BetMGM’s chief operating officer.
As EVP of content, Schell directly manages more people than anybody in Bristol with the exception of Pitaro.
Schell oversees everything from studio and remote production to digital and print content to ESPN Films and the company’s talent office. He was named EVP of content by former President John Skipper in June 2017.
Schell made one of his first big splashes at ESPN by teaming with close friend Bill Simmons to create and launch the “30 for 30” documentary series.
He was also the executive who pushed for Rachel Nichols’ NBA studio show, “The Jump,” and has been a huge proponent of anything and everything NBA inside ESPN, said sources.
But Schell’s star may have dimmed as the network’s NBA ratings cratered this year and Pitaro and Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming, acquisitions and scheduling, turned their focus toward the NFL.
The COVID-19 “storm” has wreaked havoc with ESPN’s business, Pitaro said in an internal memo.
“Prior to the pandemic, we had been deeply engaged in strategizing how best to position ESPN for future success amidst tremendous disruption in how fans consume sports,” Pitaro wrote. “The pandemic’s significant impact on our business clearly accelerated those forward-looking discussions. In the short term, we enacted various steps like executive and talent salary reductions, furloughs and budget cuts, and we implemented innovative operations and production approaches, all in an effort to weather the COVID storm.”
“We have, however, reached an inflection point,” he added. “The speed at which change is occurring requires great urgency, and we must now deliver on serving sports fans in a myriad of new ways. Placing resources in support of our direct-to-consumer business strategy, digital, and, of course, continued innovative television experiences, is more critical than ever.”
Schell plans to start his own production company, according to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post, who first reported his departure on Nov. 8.