As is its custom, ESPN pulled out all the stops for its annual “upfront” presentation for advertisers Tuesday morning at the Minskoff Theater in Manhattan.
That included appearances by various ESPN personalities, a performance by two stars of the musical “Hamilton” — Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom, Jr. — and cameos by three active athletes, two of whom, Noah Syndergaard and Bryce Harper, were scheduled to face one another about 9 1⁄2 hours later at Citi Field.
Afterward ESPN president John Skipper addressed a variety of issues with reporters, including whether there is any validity to an assertion by recently fired analyst Curt Schilling that ESPN is more tolerant of political views when they are liberal rather than conservative.
Skipper initially joked about the mention of Schilling, saying, “We’ve been shilling all morning. I don’t think there’s any absence of shilling.”
But when pressed on Schilling’s accusation, he said, “No. We have no tolerance for points of view that aren’t inclusive. We have a diverse culture. We are very focused on making sure everybody can exist comfortably and succeed in that culture.
“That’s what we have no tolerance for and I don’t care of what the politics of a person who has such an attitude are.”
Skipper also was asked about the recent and/or pending departures of some high-profile ESPN personalities, including Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Keith Olbermann, Jason Whitlock, Skip Bayless and Mike Tirico.
“I will answer that by suggesting that I did not see any lack of talent on our stage today,” he said. “We are very happy with the people who work for us. You also get a chance to see that we are highly focused on new voices and diverse voices and changing the way we look to reflect the way the fan looks now. So we are quite happy with our complement of talent.”
But is there a common thread among the departed? “I have no comment on why any one person left,” Skipper said. “I’ll have these [media relations] guys send you the emails of all those folks and you can ask them.”
Skipper said there is no replacement yet for Bayless alongside Stephen A. Smith on “First Take.” Smith had said on stage that executives told him it was his show now. But he will not do it alone.
“You heard Stephen talk about our comfort level that Stephen can lead the show,” Skipper said. “I know we believe we’ll be fine.”
Asked to comment on reports Max Kellerman and Will Cain are front-runners to replace Bayless, Skipper said, “I can, but I will not.”
Skipper was asked about negative reviews in some quarters of analyst Jessica Mendoza, a member of the “Sunday Night Baseball” booth.
“I am overwhelmingly happy and comfortable with the job Jessica is doing and support her fully and I’m very proud that we had the opportunity to put her in the booth and her performance has been fabulous,” he said. “If you saw some of the preseason, spring training stuff she did with Aaron Boone, it was fabulous.”
Tuesday marked the long-awaited debut of a new, ESPN-branded website, “The Undefeated,” which will focus on the intersection of sports and race. Asked what he hopes it can be in a best-case scenario, Skipper said:
“It’s funny. I have a hard time getting people to believe me: The thing that I care about with ‘The Undefeated’ is that they do great content. [Editor-in-chief] Kevin Merida when we met said, ‘How will I know if I’m succeeding?’ I said, ‘You’ll know you’re succeeding if you’re publishing content every day that people care about and that is smart and makes people re-question things.’ Did we succeed on Day One? We did.”
How long of a commitment to the site does ESPN have?
“We’re committed to ‘The Undefeated’ as long as the content is good,” Skipper said. “And I’m highly confident that that is as permanent a state as you can have in the media business.”