Bill Simmons, who rose from AOL blogger to one of the more influential members of the sports media industry at ESPN, is leaving the network when his contract expires at the end of 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. 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. We wish Bill continued success as he plans his next chapter. ESPN remains committed to Grantland and we have a strong team in place,” Skipper said in a statement.
In his just-posted story, the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir said contract-renewal talks had been underway between Simmons and ESPN “for months.” Skipper told Sandomir that the differences between the two were “about more than money.”
“We’ve had an excellent run with Bill, almost 15 years. It’s been good for us and good for him. It was a decision I had to make and he had to make to move forward,” Skipper told Sandomir.
Over at the Big Lead, Jason McIntyre writes that ESPN felt Simmons’s asking price — $6 million per year — was too much considering the revenue he was bringing in with Grantland and his other endeavors.
At ESPN, Simmons was the driving force behind a number of ventures, including the pop-culture site Grantland and the “30 for 30” documentary series.
It was not immediately clear where Simmons’s next destination would be. He has often clashed with ESPN management, conflict that came to head in October when the network suspended him for three weeks after he called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” in a podcast.
“Skipper said that the incident had no bearing on his decision to end ESPN’s relationship with Simmons,” Sandomir writes.
Around the time that Simmons’s suspension ended, Sandomir wrote that “people close to Simmons say he is furious and has been talking a lot about whether ESPN is still the right place for him,” and that he had threatened to leave the network in the past. The network also had suspended Simmons from Twitter twice previously, in 2009 for bashing ESPN radio affiliate WEEI in Boston and in 2013 after calling a “First Take” segment between Richard Sherman and Skip Bayless “awful and embarrassing.”
Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand, meanwhile, wrote that “ESPN clearly wants to renew the deal.” Nevertheless, ESPN’s leaders have long had the reputation of viewing the network as bigger than any one of its stars.
Simmons could follow the path taken by Patrick, who left the network in 2007 to essentially become a free agent (he now has a syndicated radio show and hosts the “Football Night in America” studio show for NBC). Simmons, who wrote a best-selling book about professional basketball and is an unabashed fan, also has stated that he would leave ESPN if the network ever lost the right to televise NBA games. Turner Sports is the only other company that has the NBA.
One former ESPN executive was blindsided by the news, according to Deadspin’s Dave McKenna. John Walsh, the former executive editor at ESPN until his retirement earlier this year, told McKenna that he hadn’t heard the news before ESPN’s announcement Friday morning.
“I talked to John Skipper last night at 9 and this didn’t certainly didn’t come up in our talk,” Walsh told McKenna.
“He’s done some things at ESPN that have offended people in some way, or perturbed people, or, I don’t know what the right word is, but things that made some people less than happy about what said he’s said about the company,” Walsh continued. “But overall, he’s been fantastic. I think he’s talented, he’s hard working, he’s independent, a great thinker about sports, a tremendous sports fan, keeps up with pop culture, and he developed one of the most literate sites on the Internet with Grantland. I love the guy.”