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ESPN's Skipper talks NBA, Penn State scandal

John Skipper, the executive vice president of content for ESPN, speaks at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York
John Skipper, the executive vice president of content for ESPN, speaks at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York

By Lisa Richwine and Paul Thomasch

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fans outraged over two college sex abuse scandals and frustrated over labor unrest in the NBA are unlikely to go so far as to abandon TV sports, ESPN's incoming president told Reuters on Monday.

"Sports fans have an unbelievable ability at the end of the day, when the game comes on, to kind of put everything aside and watch the game," ESPN's John Skipper said in his first interview since he was named last week as the TV network's next president.

Skipper will take over a sports powerhouse that has seen years of unprecedented growth under current President George Bodenheimer, who will become executive chairman. Starting in the new job in January, Skipper will have to navigate Walt Disney Co's ESPN through economic uncertainty, rising programing costs and questions about how fans will react to two sexual abuse scandals in college sports plus big-league labor disputes.

Speaking at the Reuters Media Summit in New York, Skipper said he expected fans will continue watching college sports, even amid disturbing allegations of molestation at Penn State and Syracuse University.

The Penn State charges are "horrendous, as bad as anything" that has happened in sports during ESPN's three decades on the air, Skipper said. But he added, "It doesn't have that much effect on business" for ESPN in terms of declining viewership or advertisers pulling out of broadcasts.

At Penn State, former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky faces charges of sexually abusing eight boys, a scandal that has brought down legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the school's president. Syracuse on Sunday fired assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine amid charges he sexually molested boys. Both Sandusky and Fine have denied the charges.

With regard to the NBA, Skipper said the tentative labor deal reached between players and owners over the weekend came in time to avoid longer-term damage to the league.

The sports network is working with the NBA as it sets a schedule that will allow for a 66-game season. TV ratings for NBA games are unlikely to see any dropoff, Skipper said.

"The fans will come right back," Skipper said. "There is an overblown sentiment that fans desert a sport."

As for ESPN's profits, the delayed start to the NBA season should not have an impact as most advertisers were willing to move into other sports broadcasts rather than demand their money back, said Skipper, who has overseen content at ESPN since October 2005. "The fact they missed six weeks will end up being neutral for us," he said.

Skipper said he planned to stay the course that has built ESPN's success when he takes over day-to-day operations on January 1. The company will continue to invest in sports rights, technology and news, he said.

"ESPN is not broken. We don't need a new plan. We don't need a sharp right or left turn," Skipper said. "Any shifts will be reactions to what happens" such as emergence of new technologies, he said.

Mobile sports applications are one area poised for growth, he said. ESPN is offering an array of programing, news and scores on computers, phones and tablets to give fans the chance to keep up with their teams when they're away from a TV. "I think mobile is going to grow very, very fast in the next few years," Skipper said.

One threat to ESPN and the rest of the industry would be another major pullback in advertising, after the sharp downturn in 2008 that accompanied the recession.

For now, Skipper said, advertising has held up better than he had anticipated, pointing to solid spending by the automotive, financial services and fast food industries.

One reason is that sports is among the most highly rated programing on TV, and for advertisers carries the added advantage of being watched live by viewers rather than recorded and played back at a later date, like many comedies or dramas.

"We think the ad market is going to be good next year," Skipper said.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine and Paul Thomasch; Editing by Peter Lauria)

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