NEW YORK — John Skipper, president of the sprawling ESPN sports network, said Monday that he is resigning to treat a substance abuse problem.
Skipper’s sudden announcement will force the Walt Disney Co.-owned network to search for new leadership at a time of retrenchment, with the company losing subscribers due to cord-cutters and working to boost its digital output to follow the migration of young fans to smartphones.
The 61-year-old executive, who has worked at ESPN since 1997 and has led the company since 2012, said he has struggled for many years with substance addiction but gave no details of his specific problem. He said now is the time to deal with it.
"I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down," he said. "As I deal with this issue and what it means to me and my family, I ask for appropriate privacy and a little understanding."
ESPN said Skipper’s predecessor, George Bodenheimer, will serve as acting head for the next 90 days.
Disney Co. chief executive Robert Iger said he wishes Skipper well during a challenging time. "I respect his candor and support his decision to focus on his health and his family," Iger said.
There was no public indication that this was coming. This year Skipper signed a contract extension through 2021 and last week spoke about the company’s plans in New York at the Sports Video Group Summit. He told the group of industry experts that ESPN’s growing digital audience is making up for the loss of television viewers.
He also called hundreds of ESPN’s on-air talent to a summit last week at company headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to talk about the business.
Skipper was well-liked, particularly in the news-gathering division. He has played a big role in growing ESPN into a brand much bigger than a simple cable network, and his fingerprints could be found on almost everything ESPN undertook. Despite revenue concerns and subscriptions losses, resulting in hundreds of layoffs the past couple of years, Skipper committed the network to billions of dollars in rights fees, entering into long-term agreements with Major League Baseball, the NBA, the WNBA, the College Football Playoff, the U.S. Open tennis tournament, a host of major college conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, American Athletic Conference and Mountain West— as well as the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls.
He helped launch ESPN The Magazine and had an early hand in growing espn.com. He oversaw the now-shuttered Grantland site, the Undefeated, espnW, the 30 for 30 documentary series and the acquisition of the political vertical FiveThirtyEight.