On March 11, Jimmy Pitaro worked at his home office in Westport. He’d just finished a senior staff meeting, examining different scenarios for his company in the onrushing COVID crisis.
That night, the National Basketball Association announced the suspension of its season.
The decision jolted Pitaro. The company he chairs is ESPN.
The next morning — as sports leagues around the world followed the NBA’s lead — Pitaro and his programming team began planning for every possible scenario. Their goal: keep the global sports network in business, when the business of sports had suddenly changed around the globe.
Pitaro gives his team plenty of credit. They obtained rights to WWE wrestling, and partnered with Korean baseball. They accelerated development of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part docuseries about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
Behind the scenes, ESPN scrambled to set up in-home production systems for more than 550 on-air men and women.
The moves kept programming going 24/7, in more than 200 countries. That kept anxious advertisers at bay.
When live events slowly started again, ESPN found ways to cover them remotely. Gone were gigantic production trucks; in their place were producers, play-by-play announcers and analysts covered competitions from studios and homes.
Some of those changes may continue, post-pandemic. So will demand for sports documentaries. ESPN’s features on martial artist Bruce Lee, bike racer Lance Armstrong and baseball sluggers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire found ready audiences.
The number of outside filmmakers pitching ideas now is “off the charts,” Pitaro says.
ESPN is looking for those that are “big, bold and needle-moving. We’re asking: How can we capture the zeitgeist? Where can we make an impact?”
The network is as much about story-telling and investigative reporting as it is about showing games and matches. Pitaro says he surrounds himself with “great people,” then trusts them to deliver.
Among them: fellow Westporter and ESPN producer Andy Tennant. The other day, over breakfast at The Granola Bar, they discussed shows like “E60,” the newsmagazine that Pitaro says combines “substance, heart and humor.”
Pitaro became chair of ESPN in 2018, after 8 years at its parent, the Walt Disney Company. From his first days at “The Mouse,” Pitaro and Disney chair Bob Iger talked about sports, and Pitaro’s opportunities there.
His athletic background is strong. A Scarsdale native who played football at Cornell University, Pitaro grew up in a house where “ESPN SportsCenter was the soundtrack of my life.” New York Yankees, Giants, Knicks and Rangers games were always on. His sister, Lara Pitaro Wisch, is now general counsel for Major League Baseball.
Pitaro’s wife, meanwhile, is actress Jean Louisa Kelly (“Uncle Buck,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Top Gun: Maverick”). When Pitaro joined ESPN he commuted to headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut from Los Angeles.
That was unsustainable. In mid-2018 the couple, and their 2 children, moved to Westport.
“It’s perfect,” Pitaro says. “My wife needs to be near Manhattan. It’s right between New York and Bristol. We love the water. We had friends here — including the woman who introduced me to my wife 27 years ago. We fell in love with the town.”
Their son Sean, a rising Staples High School senior, is a boxer who trains at Rich Dean’s Post Road studio. Daughter Josy, a rising sophomore, is active in Staples Players, and studies acting, voice and dance with Cynthia Gibb’s Triple Threat Academy. She also enjoys tennis, with Beth Norton at the Westport Tennis Club.
“We love it here. We couldn’t be happier,” Pitaro says.
Countless sports fans across the planet say the same thing about ESPN’s pandemic pivot. At a time of crisis, the company scored.