ESPN Reshuffles Management in Wake of Exec Departures, Layoffs

    • Norby Williamson and Stephanie Druley to co-lead production.
    • Burke Magnus adds original content development; Laura Gentile picks up social media.

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ESPN has announced a sweeping management reorganization as the sports media giant grapples with the financial fallout from the coronavirus and continued loss of subscribers due to cord-cutting and changing viewer habits.

Connor Schell, executive vice president of content, confirmed he’s leaving Jan. 8, 2021 to start his own production company.  ESPN will be his first client, with Schell executive producing two planned projects for ESPN Films: “Man in the Arena,” a nine-part docu-series on Tom Brady; and a Colin Kaepernick documentary.

Meanwhile, Jodi Markley, executive vice president of content operations and creative services, will retire after 32 years effective April 2. Markley has been a well-respected mentor to many ESPN executives and staffers.

With the exception of Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and sports content, Schell managed more people than anyone else at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

He helped produce some of ESPN’s most successful and popular programming, including this year’s Emmy-winning Michael Jordan docu-series, “The Last Dance,” the Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made in America” and the “30 for 30” film series with ex-ESPN columnist Bill Simmons.

But ESPN has been losing millions of homes — and billions in subscribers fees — from cord-cutting and changing viewer habits. 

The media giant’s two main sports cable networks, ESPN and ESPN2, are down to 82.9 million homes from more than 100 million a decade ago. The COVID-19 pandemic created a financial “storm” that ESPN and parent Walt Disney Co. are still trying to safely navigate, according to Pitaro. 

The shutdown of live sports hurt ESPN more than any network. Even when live games returned, ratings remained low with the exception of a few bright spots like the NFL’s “Monday Night Football.” 

The situation came to a head on Nov. 5 when ESPN announced the worst job cuts in its 41-year history, laying off 300 workers and eliminating 200 open positions.  

Connor Schell, ESPN’s Top Content Executive, Leaving Company

Connor Schell, ESPN’s lead executive for content, will leave the company by the end of the year, said sources.

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Parent company Disney previously laid off 28,000 theme park employees in September. Disney lost $4.72 billion in its most recent fiscal quarter, covering April through June. The company’s flagship Disneyland theme park in Southern California remains closed due to coronavirus concerns. 

Here’s a breakdown of ESPN’s new management team. All these executives report directly to Pitaro. “Going forward, our newly-formed senior leadership group is poised to drive future success,” Pitaro said in a statement.

  • Burke Magnus, executive vice president, programming and original content: Oversee programming acquisition and scheduling. Magnus has made ESPN the biggest player in college sports. He’s credited with helping save ESPN’s once-frayed relationship with the NFL. He adds original content development and scheduling for ESPN and ESPN+ to his duties. 
  • Norby Williamson, executive vice president and executive editor: Will co-lead ESPN production, including the studio shows “SportsCenter,” Mike Greenberg’s “Get Up” and Stephen A. Smith’s “First Take.” Will also co-lead event production, as well as cross-platform journalism and storytelling.
  • Stephanie Druley, executive vice president, event and studio production: Co-lead all ESPN production, including “Monday Night Football” and college football, NBA, plus studio and event production. Druley has been moving quickly up the management hierarchy in recent years and is one of the highest-ranking women in sports media.
  • Rob King, senior vice president, editor-at-large: Set ESPN’s overall journalistic direction. Also work closely with teams from ESPN Films and original content, digital content, social media, multi-platform journalism and storytelling and global content.
  • Laura Gentile, senior vice president, marketing and social media: Oversee creative marketing for the ESPN brand, including all shows, platforms and special events. She also picks up oversight of social media content.
  • Kevin Merida, senior vice president and editor-in-chief, “The Undefeated:” Lead four-year-old platform that focuses at the intersection of race, culture and sports. He’ll also partner with Disney General Entertainment and Hulu teams to grow “The Undefeated.”
  • Chris LaPlaca, senior vice president, communications: Lead all internal and external communications efforts. ESPN has always had one of the most active and effective PR/media relations teams in the sports industry.
ESPN Announces Biggest Job Layoffs in 41-Year History

ESPN announced the largest layoffs in its 41-year history, cutting 300 staffers and eliminating 200 open job positions.

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  • Mark Walker, senior vice president, content business development and Innovation: Identify and develop collaborative relationships to drive ESPN content initiatives forward.
  • Thomas Hennessy, senior vice president, finance: Manage financial matters while collaborating with his opposite numbers at parent Disney.
  • Paul Richardson, senior vice president, human resources: Oversee HR, including diversity and inclusion, corporate citizenship and security.
  • Tina Thornton, senior vice president, content operations: Lead remote operations and events, creative works, ESPN Synergy and ESPN Next program.
  • Chara-Lynn Aguiar, vice president, strategy and office of the chairman: Oversee strategic development while advising Pitaro and his direct reports. 
  • Diane Morse, chief counsel: Manage legal matters and governmental affairs.