Backline: John Skipper

By Ridge Mahoney
Senior Editor, Soccer America
Skipper says Major League Soccer coverage will have a new look in 2007 on ESPN2.

Even in a suit and tie, summoned to a press-conference microphone or posing for pictures with the commissioner of a professional league, John Skipper exudes a hang-loose persona quite unlike that normally associated with corporate America.

''Nobody ever said taking my picture was a photo opportunity, so I thank you for that,'' joked Skipper upon being informed that photographers attending the MLS All-Star media luncheon at Toyota Park were free to snap away at him and MLS boss Don Garber.

Under terms of an eight-year deal, ESPN will pay a rights fee - reportedly between $7 million and $8 million per year annually - and assume all production costs and responsibility for content, programming and promotion of MLS games. No longer will the league buy air time and spend its own money to produce national telecasts.

''The network will produce the games, the network will handle all of the programming, all of the scheduling, and all of the promotion,'' said Garber. ''We're out of the risk business. They'll have full responsibility of managing the game, managing the sport, in a way that provides them with a return on their investment.''

The league had already announced deals with HDNet and Fox Soccer Channel that also included rights fees paid to the league for the first time in its history, and a Spanish-language deal with Univision is being finalized.

Skipper, named ESPN's VP of content in October, leaped almost immediately into a situation that threatened the future of MLS. English-language and Spanish-language U.S. rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and other FIFA events were about to be sold by FIFA to a consortium led by NBC and NBC-owned Telemundo, neither of which had any interest in broadcasting MLS games.

At the behest of Garber and Sunil Gulati, now U.S. Soccer president, Chuck Blazer, the lone American on FIFA's executive committee, persuaded FIFA president Sepp Blatter to re-open the bidding, which wouldn't have made sense if Garber and Gulati didn't have a staunch backer of their sport in the broadcasting world. That was Skipper, and in November was announced a deal by which ESPN and Univision will pay a reported $425 million for the FIFA package.

''I'm the latest knucklehead to think soccer's going to work in the United States,'' said Skipper, who then added, ''Fortunately, though I'm a knucklehead, I'm a knucklehead at ESPN. And I think if we get ESPN behind soccer in this country, it is almost impossible for me to believe that we can't move this forward.

''We had a great World Cup this year. That will set the stage for what we can do next year with MLS.''

The English-language portion of the FIFA deal is valued at $100 million, which not coincidentally is roughly what the ESPN TV deal may save MLS when the league's TV costs are added to what ESPN is reportedly paying as a rights fee.

Yet the shift of risk and millions of dollars is a boon to the league, as is Skipper's taking much of the power previously wielded by former VP of programming and production Mark Shapiro, whose view of soccer drifted between disinterest and disdain.

For the 2007 season, a Thursday game of the week on ESPN2 for 26 straight weeks is planned to replace Saturday coverage of past years. (FSC and HDNet will broadcast games on Saturdays.) ABC will televise the opening game, All-Star Game and MLS Cup.

''We'll try to do some new things in the game,'' said Skipper, who refused to be drawn into a debate regarding announcer Dave O'Brien at the press luncheon. ''We're thinking about Sky-Cam, we're thinking about 18-yard offside cameras, we're thinking about cameras in the goal, mikes on the field. We'll try to do a lot of things. It's a great pleasure to work with a league that embraces changes and embraces innovations and risk.''

For MLS, risk will be much easier to embrace with someone else paying for it.

(This article opriginally appeared in the September, 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

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