The Walt Disney Co.’s real-life Game of Thrones is taking another twist with ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro emerging as a possible successor to Bob Iger.
The ESPN chairman is on the small list of executives to possibly succeed Disney’s chief executive officer, sources told Front Office Sports.
The 72-year-old Iger is set to retire again within two years after returning in November to replace struggling former CEO Bob Chapek.
According to sources, the 53-year-old Pitaro makes an appealing candidate to lead the $84 billion media/entertainment giant. Here’s why:
- In his five years at the helm of ESPN, he and No. 2 Burke Magnus have saved Disney’s crucial business partnership with the NFL. He also has the touch with top talent. Pitaro staged a lightning talent raid on Fox Sports to snare Troy Aikman and Joe Buck for “Monday Night Football.” As part of the NFL’s $113 billion, 11-year media rights deals, he did what no other ESPN boss had ever done: scored the network’s first Super Bowls after the 2026 and 2030 seasons. Plus, “flexible scheduling” for MNF this year.
- Pitaro harpooned Peyton Manning, the “white whale” of sports broadcasting. Ever since Manning’s retirement from football, he’s been chased by virtually every NFL TV partner for TV work. So Pitaro got creative, offering him and his brother Eli Manning the chance to host their alternative “ManningCast” alongside the traditional telecast of MNF. He also signed rising sports media star Pat McAfee for “College GameDay.”
- Pitaro joined Disney as co-president of Disney Interactive in 2010. With his digital background at the Mouse House and Yahoo, he’s leading ESPN into the streaming future. Under his watch, the ESPN+ streaming platform has grown to 25 million subscribers. He’s landed A-List talent for original ESPN+ shows, including the Manning brothers, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Michael Strahan, and Abby Wambach.
- Pitaro has put Disney’s stamp firmly on ESPN. Iger recently gave Pitaro’s leadership a vote of confidence. He dismissed calls from activist investors to spin off ESPN. Then Iger designated Pitaro’s ESPN as one of the three global pillars of Disney, along with Disney Parks and Disney Entertainment.
“ESPN is a differentiator for this company,” Iger told analysts on an earnings call. “We just have to figure out how to monetize it.”
The speculation about both Pitaro and Silver possibly succeeding Iger sets up an intriguing corporate storyline.
The two leaders are currently business partners with Disney’s ESPN/ABC sharing NBA media rights with Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.
And they’re about to enter high-stakes negotiations for the NBA’s next cycle of U.S. media rights. The league’s current deals with ESPN/ABC and TNT run through the 2024-2025 season. The NBA’s expected to seek $50 billion to $75 billion for its next long-term deal.
Given Disney’s public commitment to ESPN, Pitaro has to be on the short list of contenders, said sports media consultant Patrick Crakes. He’s young and time is on his side.
“That said, I can also see someone with a lot of direct entertainment production experience who has a some track record of managing businesses he doesn’t have direct experience with,” said Crakes. “Maybe [Pitaro] doesn’t get the gig this time — but maybe the next?”
Pitaro has been cited previously as a possible successor to Iger. If the former Disney executive does return to Burbank, that would position Burke Magnus, ESPN president of content, as Pitaro’s potential successor in Bristol.
Fox Business was the first to report Silver as a candidate for the Disney job. ESPN and Disney declined to comment on this story.