James Pitaro ’91, who was recently named president of ESPN and co-chair of Disney Media Networks, has had a sign outside his office for a time that says: “Work hard and be nice to people.”
He says the sign encapsulates advice once given to him from a mentor, and also sums up his experience at Cornell, which he still holds close today.
“I was inspired and challenged all the way through Cornell, and there was no cruising,” he said in a 2017 interview shortly before his most recent promotion was announced. “I bring that work ethic with me every day.”
Pitaro previously served as chairman of Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media; his new role was announced by Robert A. Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
“Jimmy is a talented and dedicated leader with the right strategic vision, relentless drive and passion for sports required to lead the stellar ESPN team at this incredibly dynamic time,” Iger said in a press release. “Jimmy forged his career at the intersection of technology, sports and media, and his vast experience and keen perspective will be invaluable in taking ESPN into the future.”
Pitaro’s journey to Disney and ESPN began at Cornell's College of Human Ecology.
“Between the opportunity to play football and the incredible academics, there really was no question,” said Pitaro, who reminisced about falling in love with Cornell during the football recruiting process. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated, but was really attracted to the variety of academic options at Cornell.”
“I knew I would get all the benefits of a medium to large university, but also have the intimacy I was so accustomed to from high school through the College of Human Ecology – and I was right,” he added. “I formed some very close relationships with my teachers during my four years and, actually, in my senior year, became a teacher’s assistant.”
During his junior year, Pitaro had a life-changing experience while in the Cornell in Washington program. He interned by day and attended classes by night, including one titled The Holocaust and Jurisprudence.
“After one of the classes, my professor came up to me and said that I’d make a good lawyer,” he recalled. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at that time, but I really respected and admired this professor and decided right then and there to become a lawyer.”
“Obviously my career has twisted and turned, but I would not be where I am without that moment.”
Pitaro previously served as president of Disney Interactive. Prior to his roles at Disney, he served as vice president and head of Yahoo Media, where he set strategy and developed and executed growth-driving initiatives for Yahoo’s media properties, including Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Music.
Earlier in his career, Pitaro was vice president of business affairs for LAUNCH Media, Inc. and practiced law at several New York firms after studying law at St. John’s Law School in New York City and receiving his J.D. degree.
Pitaro’s appointment comes at a time Disney has described as great opportunity for ESPN, as it readies the launch of its new direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service. Creating transformative entertainment experiences through digital technology has been a hallmark of Pitaro’s career, from building Yahoo Sports into an industry-leading online service to leading Disney’s creation of innovative interactive products and services.
“Technological change is the most transformative force in the industry,” Pitaro said. “Looking ahead, we’re focused on cutting-edge tech, like artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented and virtual reality to create next-generation experiences.”
“Too often, innovation gets confused with technology, but really, innovation is all about mindset, not 1s and 0s,” Pitaro said. “Bob Iger often talks about the most important attributes of an executive and at the top of his list is always curiosity. The point being that it’s not enough to be smart and talented – you have to be curious.”