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Jimmy Pitaro: ‘The More People Betting on Sports, the Better it is For Business’

When Jimmy Pitaro was studying economics at Cornell University, he never could have envisioned himself being responsible for running ESPN in the future. As a college athlete, he watched ESPN and loved the network but never thought about working there until he was competing with the company while working at Yahoo Sports. Following a meeting with Bob Iger, the chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, Pitaro was offered a job to serve as the co-president of Disney Interactive. Every year at his performance reviews, he would mention his interest in working at ESPN in the future, an opportunity he earned in 2018 when he was named the president of ESPN and co-chair of Disney Media Networks.

Pitaro, who was named the Chairman of ESPN and Sports Content in 2020, has led the company through a dynamic media landscape filled with altered consumer tendencies and innovations in technology and presentation. An aspect of the network that has remained constant through changes to its portfolio and the surrounding ecosystem is in its commitment to serve sports fans anytime and anywhere. During a recent appearance on the Cornell (thank) U podcast, Pitaro explained the importance of having passion for sports in being an employee at the company.

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“These jobs are really hard, and to be successful here, you need to be passionate about sports,” Pitaro said. “It’s very, very hard to fake it. They’re all-encompassing, and if you’re not excited about the material, the subject matter, it’s going to be very, very challenging to perform.”

The ESPN Campus is located in Bristol, Conn. and has served as the headquarters of the company since it was founded in 1979. Pitaro explained that being immersed in the setting feels akin to a college campus, and that the company intends to stay there and continues to invest in the property. The company has more than 1.3 million square feet across 19 buildings on 120 acres of land in the area and also rents an additional 200,000 square feet in two nearby locations as well.

“Bristol has been incredible to ESPN; the State of Connecticut has been incredible to ESPN,” Pitaro said. “We love it here; our employees love it here.”

ESPN continues to invest in women’s sports and has observed its growth over several years, televising games of entities including the WNBA, NWSL and Athletes Unlimited. The company also introduced the espnW brand in 2010 and holds annual conferences discussing important issues in the landscape. Earlier in the year, ESPN and the NCAA reached a new, eight-year media rights agreement that grants the network the rights to 21 women’s and 19 men’s championship events. This includes exclusive championship coverage of all rounds within women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, women’s gymnastics and softball.

The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament established new viewership records this past spring, including the most-watched college basketball game of all time on ESPN platforms. The National Championship Game between South Carolin and Iowa averaged 18.9 million viewers, the best mark on record, and set new viewership records in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, National Semifinals and Final Four.

March Madness on ESPN platforms averaged 2.2 million viewers, the best mark in network history, which was followed by a record-setting WNBA Draft in mid-April that averaged 2.45 million viewers. Pitaro called the tournament “mind-blowingly great” and delineated that there have been people at ESPN helping the network function as a “material contributor” as women’s sports continue to grow.

“It’s been a priority for decades, and I can take zero credit for this,” Pitaro said. “ESPN has been investing in women’s sports for many, many years that predate me, but it is so amazing to see this playing out the way it is right now with all of this fantastic momentum.”

ESPN agreed to a partnership with PENN Entertainment last year to launch ESPN BET, an online sportsbook in the United States that went live in 17 states in November. The company has included its talent in commercials for the entity, including Scott Van Pelt, Stephen A. Smith and Elle Duncan, while also rebranding Daily Wager to ESPN BET Live featuring personalities such as Joe Fortenbaugh and Erin Dolan.

Pitaro acknowledged that sports betting has affected sports viewership and that the network is operating amid cord cutting but still garnering increased ratings. Part of that can be attributed to high-quality productions, original films and studio programming, he explained, along with the creation of ESPN BET.

“It’s also sports betting, and so this is somewhat stating the obvious so I apologize, but when you place a bet on the Giants-Packers game, you are going to be more likely to watch that game on Monday Night Football than if you didn’t have this betting interest,” Pitaro said, “and so from our perspective, the more people betting on sports, the better it is for business.”

ESPN is currently in 67.7 million homes, according to data from Nielsen Media Research, and is working on introducing a new direct-to-consumer product next year. Moreover, ESPN, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, is part of Venu Sports, a new joint streaming venture that also features linear content from the FOX Corporation and Warner Bros. Discovery that is scheduled to launch this fall.

ESPN attained a 3% rise in revenue to $4.21 billion in its fiscal second quarter; however, a drop in cable subscribers and increased programming costs led to a 9% decrease in operating income to $799 million. The agreement to partner with PENN Entertainment on ESPN BET is reportedly for 10 years, $1.5 billion and also includes performance incentives.

“Our fans were actually asking for it,” Pitaro said of ESPN BET. “They were frustrated that ESPN did not have a betting experience, so we did the research, we saw that, we heard it loud and clear, and so we ultimately decided to pull the trigger, make the investment, partner with PENN Entertainment, and it’s going quite well for us and we’re very pleased.”


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