ESPN's Old Boss Has a New Plan: Bring Sports to Streaming. - Bloomberg

John Skipper has five new podcasts to sell you. If you stick around, he’ll tell you about a couple documentaries too.

The former chief of ESPN has spent most of his career working at large media companies, negotiating multi-billion dollar deals with the NFL and distribution deals with Comcast. 

But now, after a brief stint at the streaming startup DAZN, Skipper has teamed with his friend (and former employee) Dan LeBatard to create a new media company that wants to produce for the media behemoths Skipper used to run. Meadowlark Media will sell podcasts, documentaries and unscripted series to Netflix, Apple, Amazon and anyone else who wants a taste.

It’s not hard to see the opportunity. Skipper’s own former protege Connor Schell has started a company to do more or less the same thing.

With a handful of massive conglomerates competing to control your attention, it’s a good time to be a creator and a seller. And while some genres made the shift to streaming years ago, sports has not. But it’s going to. 

The success of “The Last Dance,” which Skipper helped bring to ESPN, has everyone scrambling to make their own version. Just this week, Netflix announced plans for three sports documentary series. Peacock, HBO Max, Hulu and Paramount+ are all shopping as well.

Meadowlark is starting with podcasts. On Monday, the company will announce deals for five new shows:

  • “Fullcast After Dark,” a weekly show recapping the day in college football
  • “Montgomery and C,” a podcast hosted by former WNBA star Renee Montgomery
  • “Off the Looking Glass,” a new magazine style podcast hosted by Kate Fagan
  • And an untitled soccer show co-hosted by Landon Donovan, Chris Wittyngham and Grant Wahl.
  • A new series co-hosted by former football player Ricky Wiliams and LeBatard. (Williams will also appear on LeBatard’s podcast and offer his takes on both sports and astrology.)

But Skipper isn’t betting his company’s future on podcast. Video is where the real money lies. Skipper wouldn’t discuss specific projects, though Meadowlark already has a couple in the works. Fagan is working on a video project about the Las Vegas Aces, a professional women’s basketball team, and former ESPN personality Kenny Mayne is developing a TV show that is described as “Ted Lasso”-esque. 

Earlier this week, I spoke with Skipper, erudite and charming as ever, about podcasts, sports documentaries and ESPN. Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start with the easy one: What is Meadowlark Media?

We are created to fill what I regard as a void in world class non-event sports content. Streaming services generally underrepresent sports. There is just not a lot of sports content in any genre on Netflix, Hulu, Paramount +, HBO Now or Discovery Plus.

Our intention is to provide that across all kinds of genres -- audio, terrestrial radio, podcasts, documentaries, unscripted reality. We will start in sports, but I don’t think we view ourselves as having to completely stay rooted there.

At least to start, it seems as though most of what you are doing is in audio? Is that because it’s the cheapest and easiest to get started?

Dan LeBatard left ESPN. He and I are friends. We started a company together. His show with Stugotz was terrestrial radio, and he was in the process at ESPN of trying to do podcasts.

But the thesis in your question is accurate. Audio is fairly inexpensive to make. You will see us and do see us building a talent network and for not a lot of money create a bunch of podcasts.

While you oversaw ESPN’s radio network, most of your background has been in writing and video. How did you prepare to enter the world of podcasting?

Podcasting is a specific medium which is overwhelmingly hot right now. It’s a growing business.

We have Dan. There are a few people -- Bill Simmons, Barstool, whatever I may think of their particular slant, they have certainly experienced a great deal of success -- there are a few singular talents. Dan is one of them. He’s in the top 3 or top 4, and some days he’s No. 1.

There is a network effect. All of these things will cross-promote. Kate will be on Dan’s show. She’ll say ‘hey I have a new podcast dropping tomorrow.’ Dan too has ambitions. He’s working on a documentary project. Dan started as sportswriter for the Miami Herald. He did long-form feature writing for us. I think that translates well to storytelling in other areas.

Are people overestimating how much money can be made in podcasts?

Absolutely, 95% of the people doing it. When I got out of school, I wanted to be in book publishing business and the magazine business. But the print business has been in dramatic decline and will continue to be. I sometimes say the last refuge of every journalism scandal is they’ll announce they are doing a podcast. The space is very crowded. It’s not right now a particularly big business. Last year it was $850 million in advertising. This year I think its double, $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

There’s 2 million podcasts. The math is really bad. It breaks down to $2 per hour. The terrestrial radio business is still $20 billion-plus. Just as all of the magazine and newspaper money went over into digital advertising, the terrestrial radio business overwhelming will move into the podcast business. At some point it will be a $10 billion to $15 billion business. If we can have a share of that, it’s not inconsequential. Of course, the video business is $200 billion, or $300 billion. That clearly is the bigger target.

You signed a big deal with DraftKings. What are you going to make for them?

What they did was to buy title sponsorships for Dan’s show and the LeBatard and friends podcast network. Renee Montgomery’s podcast is part of LeBatard and Friends. Grant Wahl and Landon Donovan’s podcast is not.

How do you distinguish what goes in it?

The deal requires us to produce a certain amount of advertising inventory and content. We want to over deliver, but also develop other things that deliver incremental revenue.

Were you surprised by the news that ESPN is looking to sell its brand for a gambling sponsorship?

It’s just amazing how quickly things changed. In 2015, we did a very big deal with DraftKings for advertising that at the same time was a big step forward. We had not been willing to be quite so overt and aggressive in even taking advertising. At the time we did that deal, Kevin Mayer and I recommended that we buy some of DraftKings and the company was uncomfortable doing so.

I think Disney and ESPN are following the money and the social acceptance. The company was wise to be careful. But the world has moved and you combine that with the pressure of declining pay-TV universe. When revenue is challenged, the openness to do things that are slightly dodgy becomes more acceptable.

What are the best sports documentaries you’ve seen?

‘The Last Dance’ got it right. ‘Ted Lasso’ is another good example’ of when people have gotten sports right. The answer is now there’s not much.

When you look at the track record of “30 for 30,” that’s a great example. Those things did great. HBO is not doing that much. ESPN has cut back on 30 for 30 fairly dramatically. Two out of every three pitches I hear refer to ‘The Last Dance’ or Anthony Bourdain. Everyone is trying to do the next ‘Last Dance.’ But “30 for 30” is a better model. Some of those documentary series are too long.

What did you learn about the streaming video business while running DAZN, and how did that inform what you’re doing now?

The most pertinent learning and the most profound learning was getting a glimpse into just how a subscription streaming service works, particularly how a sports streaming service works.

I grew to understand quite acutely what a difficult technological challenge it is to distribute content in real-time at scale. You’re trying to do dozens of games in a short period of time, a sports weekend. That is exponentially more complicated than delivering a large repository of content that is already in the computers. Netflix isn’t sending 900,000 people a stream all at 3 p.m. on an afternoon.

The second thing I learned is pertinent to his new company. At DAZN we tried secondary sports and tertiary sports, thinking ‘they can’t work on pay-tv, but there are 17 million hardcore badminton fans. We just gotta get 9% to sign up and you’ve got 300,000 people.’ None of that stuff works. What works is top of the pyramid rights that people have to see.

Where do documentaries fit into that?

The content you need for retention is complementary content to the first core games. You don’t need a big library. You need shows about Serie A to get Serie A fans on. When ESPN+ gets there, they’ll discover they need a lot less studio shows. If people come on six to eight times a month, it’s enough.

Services in the U.S. will find themselves squeezed with increased rights costs and decreasing pay-TV revenues. They will need complementary content, and they will buy from third parties instead of retaining large staff to do their own.

If they have so many people working on studio shows who won’t have much to do, why would they go to a third party instead of doing it in-house?

They have lots of resources, and lots of people internally who don’t have enough to do. They wont find enough for them to do. They will lay them off. They will find going to spend a couple million dollars on a documentary from a third party will be more efficient than making it yourself.

What about the talent and shows you’re announcing tomorrow? How did those deals come together?

We hired Kate, Renee and Ricky Williams to be part of the Dan LeBatard universe. We needed more women on Dan’s show. Renee, Kate and Jessica are all part of that strategy. Dan and Ricky had been friends for a long time, and Dan wanted to do something with him. 

Grant Wahl is a friend of mine. Landon Donovan and I have long had a relationship. Everyone knows I’m soccer crazy. A chance to do something with Landon and Grant appeals to me.

One of great things about having our own company is that we are not to scale. These are not huge bets. If I was at a big company, I’d have to be justifying it to someone else. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else. — Lucas Shaw

The best of Screentime (and other stuff)

Is a Hollywood strike imminent?

IATSE, the labor union for Hollywood’s prop makers, camera operators and other crew, is on the verge of striking against the major Hollywood studios.

The organization is asking for higher wages, more rest and better benefits. Per Indiewire,

“the major sticking point in the latest round of negotiations is over rates and/or benefits for streaming projects, which are currently slated at a lower rate under the “New Media” classification. IATSE argues that after 13 years, streaming can no longer be considered “New Media,” preferring the term “Not So New Media.” (Crews working on Netflix series and movies are paid at union rates, but benefits paid via residuals are a point of contention.)”

We spend a lot of time talking about the number of shows being made, and how much money creators are getting paid. We don’t spend much time talking about the thousands of laborers who make many of those shows a reality.

The No. 1 TV show in the U.S. is…

NFL Kansas City Chiefs
Photographer: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Football, duh. The National Football League returned this weekend, and executives at the organization are optimistic viewership will rise from a year ago.

Increases in live TV viewership don’t happen anymore, but the NFL may be the one exception. Ratings fell 7% a year ago, due largely to an increase in news viewership. People wanted to hear the latest on the pandemic, and the 2020 presidential election.

Ratings for the opening game of “Thursday Night Football” jumped 20% from a year ago.

  • Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” moved the equivalent of 613,000 albums in its first week in the U.S., the biggest opening since Taylor Swift’s “folklore” last year. His album dethroned “Donda” from Kanye West, who had just scored the biggest first week of any album this year. While Drake is much bigger draw than Kanye, the sales for “Donda” are still notable because West hadn’t scored a big hit in about a decade.

A Chinese streaming service comes to Roku

iQiyi, one of the leading video services in China, will become available on Roku devices this fall. 

The streaming service is looking to expand outside of China, where the bulk of its more than 100 million customers reside. The service is already available on Amazon Fire and Apple TV. 

iQiyi is on track to generate almost $5 billion in sales this year, split between subscription and advertising. But it also lost more than $1 billion last year. 

The movie shuffle continues

The strong performance of “Shang Chi” has emboldened studios to go ahead with major theatrical releases. Sony moved its new “Venom” movie up, while Disney said it would release its next Marvel movie, “Eternals,” in theaters before making it available at home.

And yet, Universal decided to release “Halloween Kills” on Peacock at the same time as theaters. What do these moves mean about the future of movies?

Not much! The best line on the movie business this past week came from a long-time studio vet: Anyone who says they know what the future holds is an idiot.

Apple loses a lawsuit

Apple will have to allow apps to offer users ways to pay outside of its App Store, a court ruled this week. That is a major win for app developers, who have complained that Apple’s in-app payment model was anti-competitive. Apple takes a 30% cut of most transactions in its App Store.

Momentum is building all over the world for Apple and Google to adjust their App Store policies, driven in large part by pressure from Spotify and Epic. 

And yet, Apple still won on nine of 10 counts in the case.

Deals, deals, deals

  • Chris Nolan is shopping his next movie, leaving the Warner Bros. lot for the first time in more than a decade. 
  • Amazon introduced its first TV set, and said goodbye to the head of its streaming service iMDB TV.
  • Brian Robbins is about to replace Jim Gianopulos as the head of Paramount Pictures.
  • Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are in talks to sell their company to the same group that bought Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine.

Weekly playlist

Thank you to the reader who suggested I check out Tems, a Nigerian singer about to drop a new EP.

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