The magazine was intended to directly take on Sports Illustrated with an appeal to a younger, hipper crowd. “It’s Rolling Stone crossed with Sports Illustrated,” Skipper said in the ESPN oral history “Those Guys Have All the Fun.”
“Everything we wanted to do was a clear delineation with that’s them and that’s old, and that’s last generation, and that’s the thing that happened yesterday,” he added.
Skipper estimated on a recent episode of Bill Simmons’s podcast at The Ringer that in the mid-2000s the magazine earned a profit of $30 million to $40 million annually, though this likely includes other ESPN products that were bundled with it. Its success helped propel Skipper up the ESPN hierarchy to president of the company.
But not only has the world of print publishing changed radically since then, so has ESPN.
Skipper, who spoke frequently about the importance of storytelling and rigorous journalism, is no longer at ESPN. He resigned in 2017 after what he described as an extortion attempt related to a purchase of cocaine.
In the last several years, ESPN has undergone successive rounds of layoffs. The company is still highly profitable, but its growth has ground to a halt as consumers continue to abandon pay television. In 2011, about 100 million Americans subscribed to a television package with ESPN. That number is down to less than 85 million, a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
As the company has reoriented toward a future in digital video, it has shed some of its high-minded projects. Grantland, a sports and pop culture site built in Simmons’s image, was shut down in 2015. FiveThirtyEight, a data-heavy sports and politics site created by Nate Silver, was transferred to ESPN’s corporate sibling ABC News last year. Subscriptions to ESPN Insider, a fantasy sports and gambling-heavy section of ESPN’s website which used to be merged with the magazine, were instead merged in August into ESPN+, ESPN’s new subscription digital video service.
Under the new president, Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN has focused on getting back into the good graces of the N.F.L. and rapidly growing ESPN+ by filling it with thousands of sports contests.