It was hardly surprising, given their recent history, but the breakup between ESPN and Bill Simmons, one of its biggest stars, last week was shocking at least in its timing, coming four months before his contract was to expire in September.
The relationship between the columnist, on-air personality and creative force came to a halt Friday when the network’s president, John Skipper, told the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir that he had decided not to renew Simmons’ contract. “I decided,” he said, “it was time to move on.” In some ways, it was a natural decision, especially after Simmons’ suspension last fall when he called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “a liar” and dared his bosses to suspend him for so bluntly ripping the head of the network’s most important broadcast partners.
But there was much more to the Simmons soap opera, as James Andrew Miller writes in Vanity Fair. Miller is the author of “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” and he recounts just how deep the rift went after Simmons’ suspension.
The suspension was supposed to include a two-week dock in pay, but when he looked at his paychecks afterward, Simmons could hardly help noticing that the checks were for the usual amount. He interpreted this as ESPN holding out an olive branch; the public censure had been just for show, Simmons thought; there was no financial penalty after all. That might have smoothed things out between Simmons and management—but on December 19, Simmons opened his pay envelope and was not pleased. Two weeks’ worth of salary wasn’t there: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Simmons—here’s your lump of coal.” Simmons had had enough. The chances of him staying at ESPN from that point onward became less and less probable.
Not much changed with Grantland, the website Simmons founded,” and “30 for 30,” the documentary series he helped create, but NBA coverage became another matter as the season wore on. Besides being more comfortable on-air with Michelle Beadle than Sage Steele, Simmons, Miller writes, “also seemed frustrated by what he considered the inadequate amount of time devoted to halftime, and other ancillary shows, and objected to slotting pre- and post-game coverage directly opposite big playoff games on other networks. To him, that was intentionally scuttling of ESPN shows, suicidal programming.”
Simmons wasn’t shy about speaking up and then last week on the “Dan Patrick Show,” he said Goodell lacks “testicular fortitude.” That was apparently the last straw for Skipper, who chose to cut Simmons loose in a decision both might come to regret. From Miller:
In the end, one could say with minimal originality, but considerable accuracy, that Bill Simmons simply flew too close to the sun. He miscalculated how much value ESPN put on him and on his unique abilities and talents. He might also have forgotten a cardinal company rule that remains sacred whether it’s ESPN’s Old Guard talking or its new one: Nobody, but nobody, can be bigger than those four initials.
On the other hand, it could be said that Bristol forgot a kind of cardinal rule itself: In an era where fans can get not just scores but highlights, and a ton more, on their smart phones, distinctive and original content is the way to engage and hold onto an audience plopped in front of big 99-inch screens. That content often comes with a big price tag—and with a requirement that the people with unique abilities and talent who create it be treated like the stars you’ve paid for.