When the 2019 NFL draft took over downtown Nashville last month, ESPN became a city within the city, with more than 600 staffers and freelancers on site, and its top executive, Jimmy Pitaro, surveyed the scene like its mayor.
Pitaro shook hands and introduced himself to every ESPN employee in his path as he toured the red brick brewery on Honky Tonk Highway where the sports media behemoth was based for 90 hours of live draft coverage. ("I'm Jimmy," was his opening line.) But the New York Giants fan in him took over when he ran into "NFL Primetime" host Trey Wingo.
"Tell me real quickly -- what are the Giants going to do?"
Wingo told Pitaro that his fellow ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. was certain the Giants were targeting Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, a prediction that proved correct several hours later.
Such insider information is why Pitaro, 49, loved ESPN as a sports-obsessed schoolboy athlete in Edgemont, a Westchester County, N.Y., hamlet 15 miles north of Yankee Stadium. "I grew up as a huge ESPN fan, not just a sports fan," he told The Times.
His passion for the network is what drove the veteran Walt Disney Co. executive to aggressively pursue the president's job at ESPN after John Skipper resigned suddenly in December 2017 to deal with a substance abuse issue.
Pitaro took over ESPN in March 2018 after spending eight years running Disney's interactive and consumer products divisions. He confronted a tricky task: maintaining ESPN's highly profitable but maturing core television business at a time when the company was roiled by subscriber losses, layoffs and a perception by some on Wall Street that it was a problem for Disney.
Although challenges remain, analysts and colleagues credit Pitaro for bringing stability to the iconic company and finding new ways to reach out to younger audiences.
Pitaro, whose ties to the sports business began as he rose through the media division at tech company Yahoo, was eager to take on ESPN even as the media described a company in disarray, according to friends.
"We were having coffee on the Disney lot, and I said something like, 'Dude, you guys are getting beat up,'" said Todd duBoef, president of Top Rank Boxing. "He said, 'Every day, I see the headlines and I think: "What, am I crazy? I just want to go for it."' He was not afraid of the challenge."