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Disney Succession Talk Rises Amid Shareholder Battles, ESPN Changes

  • Public attention builds regarding who will lead the company after Iger.
  • Jimmy Pitaro’s profile continues to escalate as the sports media giant remains on the cusp of several major initiatives.
Jul 12, 2023; Los Angeles, CA, USA; ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro arrives on the red carpet before the 2023 ESPYS at the Dolby Theatre.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The intrigue surrounding Disney leadership succession is heating up, perhaps with as much drama as the popular TV show of the same name.

Current CEO Bob Iger returned to the job with an initial expiration date at the end of 2024, only to sign a two-year contract extension that pushes that exit out to the end of ’26, when he’ll be 75. But, with nearly three years to go, interest and speculation are quickly rising about who will lead Disney in its next era.

Bloomberg reported last week that ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro is one of four leading internal candidates, joining Dana Walden and Alan Bergman, co-chairs of Disney Entertainment, and Josh D’Amaro, who heads up the company’s theme parks business. Pitaro’s listing there is hardly a surprise, as he and Iger have been close for years, and his name has already come up in succession talks for more than a year.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal profiled Pitaro on Sunday, detailing his efforts to remake the sports media giant in an era of unprecedented media turbulence while also describing him as “one of the contenders to succeed” Iger. 

A New Level of Urgency

The Disney succession issue, however, is now heating up for several reasons. Not only is ESPN on the cusp of several major initiatives, including a full, direct-to-consumer offering, bidding for another set of NBA rights, and potentially the sale of part of the network, but Disney is also facing increased shareholder pressure. 

Activist investor Nelson Peltz, in particular, has lobbied hard on several fronts, including for more clarity on the succession plan, rescaling the TV and movie business, and a bundling of the ESPN+ and Netflix streaming services. He is also pushing for board seats to further advance his case, engaging in a broad-based campaign, which includes various white papers and other advocacy efforts. Disney has opposed Peltz on virtually every front. 

Helping Disney’s case, however, are improved earnings and a 25% surge in shares so far this year, closing at $113.85 per share Monday. Perhaps seeing some of that growth, influential proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis recommended Disney shareholders withhold votes for all board candidates except Disney’s own selections.

Pitaro, among others, ruffled feathers with the recent announcement of a Fox-ESPN-Warner Bros. Discovery streaming alliance, but he has several major pluses in his favor, including having rebuilt a once-fractured ESPN relationship with the NFL and landing the network’s first Super Bowls.

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