James Miller has made a career out of chronicling history, with a good part of that being the evolution through the years of sports media giant ESPN. He authored the book, "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN" and recently embarked on an ambitious podcast project with several episodes focusing on ESPN. He chatted recently with the Star Tribune's Michael Rand:
Q John Skipper recently announced he's stepping down as president of ESPN. What will that mean?
A John was the type of president for ESPN that people at various levels of the company could interact with, and he got involved in a lot of projects that of people in the same job would not have been involved in. … It's a significant departure because of John's personal tastes and personal relationships. ESPN is going to be a very different company without John Skipper.
Q ESPN ran into controversy recently with a show involving Barstool Sports, which it dropped amid backlash. What was your read on that and ESPN's relationship with social media?
A That's one of the reasons I did the podcast that just came out on ESPN and social media. I do think it's been a fascinating chapter to track in their history. … I think one of the things ESPN continues to do is try and find ways to move beyond its base and attract new eyeballs. With the case of Barstool Sports, that became a trickier proposition than they might have thought in the beginning.
Q Disney, ESPN's parent company, recently announced a pending acquisition of Fox Sports regional networks, including Fox Sports North here in Minnesota. What's their end goal or strategy with that acquisition?
A They're looking for additional distribution avenues and different ways to get out of their own ecosystem they've been in for quite a while. It's going to be interesting for you all in Minnesota to see the changes. What is ESPN going to do with it? They're obviously dedicated to the premise of it, but within that there are a lot of options. … They're going to try to use as much leverage as possible.
Q Can you even begin to describe how the landscape has changed for ESPN and other media entities given our accelerated pace of change?
A There are so many things we used to take for granted that are changing. It's a world where ESPN has 13 million fewer subscribers than it did several years ago, where NFL ratings in general are down. Things we took for granted, all the sudden every month we're uncovering or discussing yet another aspect of change. That's what makes the stakes so high. ... Some companies are going to guess right and some will guess wrong.
Q Do you have thoughts on the next "big thing" in sports media that is going to help the winners succeed?
A Some of it is, "How are we going to be consuming content several years from now?" Are places like ESPN going to be part of the daily fabric of our consumption and how we interact with the world? It's clearly a goal for them and something they've been able to enjoy, but how much longer can that go? It used to be that the nightly "SportsCenter" was must-see-TV, and now we watch highlights on our phone. One of those ways we will define success is how linked we are with a company like ESPN.