Bill Simmons — the brash, opinionated, voice-of-the-fan pundit and one-man media “brand” — won’t be slinging his potshots and brickbats for ESPN much longer.
In a development that surprised many if not for its outcome then for its timing and tone, the sports TV network and digital colossus said Friday that it will part ways with Simmons when his contract runs out in September.
“I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’ contract. We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on,” the company’s chief executive, John Skipper, said in a statement.
The news marked an abrupt end to what seemed to be one of the more successful partnerships in the sports-industrial complex that is ESPN, but one that had been marked recently by both Simmons’s occasionally controversial on-air antics and behind-the-scenes demands. With the high perch afforded by ESPN, Simmons became a multi-threat opinionater and built a massive following on the air, online, on social media (nearly 3.7 million followers on Twitter) and via podcasts.
But Simmons was equally good for ESPN. Although never a filmmaker, he was the co-founder of ESPN’s documentary series, “30 for 30,” which has married sports to the larger culture through the work of a series of acclaimed directors. He was also the founding editor of Grantland, ESPN’s much-praised but money-losing sports-and-pop-culture site.
Simmons’s “it” factor may have stemmed from more than his ability to assess point guards and power forwards on ESPN’s National Basketball Association coverage. His appeal has been broader and more diffuse — essentially, as an arbiter of “guy stuff.” Simmons has been equally at home talking knowledgeably and humorously about movies, professional wrestling and “Beverly Hills, 90210” as he is about sports.
“I think he nailed the fan voice online before anyone else did,” said Drew Magary, a columnist for the sports Web site Deadspin and a correspondent for GQ. “I mean, that’s why I read him back in 1999-2000. His voice was so different from the [hacks] usually littering up the sports section — people who didn’t even seem to enjoy sports — that his voice just seemed new and fun and a lot closer to readers than anyone else at the time.”
Simmons also was one of the strongest counter-corporate voices at ESPN, regularly embodying and expressing the poin of view of the Boston sports fan that he is. Although Simmons’s first love and true specialty was the NBA, his denunciation of National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell on his B.S. Report podcast last year may have started his unraveling at ESPN.
The network suspended Simmons, 45, for three weeks in September after he repeatedly called Goodell a “liar” following Goodell’s comments about the Ray Rice domestic violence case. The suspension went to the heart of ESPN’s inherent conflict of interest: It is at once a journalism organization that covers the NFL and a business partner of the NFL through its
multibillion-dollar contract to carry the league’s games. Simmons, in effect, strayed into dangerous territory.
He did so again Thursday, calling out Goodell for his handling of the New England Patriots’ “DeflateGate” scandal. This time the venue was beyond the corporate fences — Simmons was on former ESPN anchor Dan Patrick’s syndicated radio show.
“There really were no active negotiations going on the last couple months between Simmons’s representatives and the network,” said James Andrew Miller, co-author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.” “It wasn’t completely over, but when Bill went on Dan Patrick and talked about the commissioner, Skipper just said, ‘No mas.’ ”
The business case against Simmons, who reportedly earned $5 million annually at ESPN, may have been just as compelling against renewal. Grantland has been an expensive proposition for ESPN and hasn’t turned a profit since its founding in 2011.
It’s unlikely that Simmons will be without work for long, said John Ourand, who covers sports media for SportsBusiness Journal. ESPN’s national rival, Fox Sports, is a potential destination, Ourand said, especially because it recently hired a former ESPN and NBC executive, Jamie Horowitz, who is a friend of Simmons. But there are others: Turner Sports has NBA rights, and NBC could benefit from the younger, male audience that knows Simmons.
Ourand expects Simmons to stretch beyond sports. Noting Simmons’s friendship with talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, he said: “I suspect his next move will have a real entertainment beat to it. I’d be surprised if it’s pure sports.” (Simmons briefly worked as a writer on Kimmel’s late-night show in 2003-2004 before returning to ESPN full-time.)
ESPN remained tight-lipped about its relationship with Simmons. The news was delivered via a story in the New York Times and the statement from Skipper, which continued: “ESPN’s relationship with Bill has been mutually beneficial — he has produced great content for us for many years and ESPN has provided him many new opportunities to spread his wings.”
Skipper added that ESPN “remains committed” to Grantland, a statement that implicitly suggested that the fate of Simmons’s brainchild has been under review.
Magary said he expects ESPN to roll on without Simmons: “No one will stop watching [Monday Night Football] just because they can’t read old ‘Karate Kid’ jokes online” from Simmons.
Simmons himself was uncharacteristically silent. As his millions of Twitter followers sat by in anticipation, the man who became famous for his opinions had nothing to say about his immediate past or his future.