Bill Simmons, one of the most recognizable and popular of ESPN's massive stable of writing and reporting talent, is no longer part of that stable.
“I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’ contract," ESPN president John Skipper said in a statement. "We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on."
The reporting on how this all came about is still developing -- and, at this point, mostly coming from the ESPN side of things. But, regardless of the specific details of how the split came about -- and you can be sure money had something (okay, a lot) to do with it -- Simmons's now-ended run at the sports TV giant does provide a telling window into the media landscape.
Simmons was one of the first -- and biggest -- stars of the age of Internet journalism. Rising from total obscurity in Boston, he perfected a style of writing about sports that was more fan than professional reporter. He wrote like people talked. He was funny. And, most importantly, he was edgy. Simmons was willing to say things other people in the media weren't. It was part of his charm -- and his appeal.
ESPN is not a dumb company. They saw what Simmons was becoming -- a brand entirely his own -- and invested heavily in him. He became one of the most prominent columnists on ESPN's Web site. Then he became more than just a guy writing smartly about sports. He was one of the masterminds behind the brilliant "30 for 30" documentaries that ESPN produced to much acclaim. (Yes, I have an entire list of politics "30 for 30s" ready to go just as soon as someone greenlights the project.) Soon Simmons had his own sub-site -- Grantland -- aimed at producing longer-form journalism in sports and pop culture. He was one of the hosts of ESPN's basketball show. He had the "Grantland Basketball Hour."
You get the idea. In relatively short order, he had become one of the pillars on which the modern ESPN was built. But as Simmons grew in stature and profile, it became clear that his relationship with ESPN was starting to fray.
Why? Lots of reasons but the one that I kept noticing was that Simmons's edginess -- his willingness to not talk like another, well, talking head -- became more and more problematic. It's easy to say, "Oh, that's just Simmons," when he wrote for "Page 2," ESPN.com's "voicey" little brother. But, suddenly Simmons was at the core of what ESPN was doing, and it was much less fine for him to, say, offer up his feelings on colleagues at ESPN or criticize NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The problem, of course, was (and is) that Simmons's "brand" was built on honest (and sometimes profane) commentary about athletes, entertainers and, yes, occasionally his colleagues. Asking Simmons not to be Simmons was impossible. The relationship, built on the brand Simmons created and ESPN spent more than a decade cultivating, couldn't continue.
All journalism -- sports, political and otherwise -- is grappling with these very same realities. Reporter-as-brand is now an accepted fact of modern journalism. What's less accepted -- or, at least, understood -- is how personal brand and company brand co-habitate (or if they do at all).
When ESPN suspended Simmons over his Goodell comments, I wrote:
ESPN is bigger than Simmons in sheer volume. And it's not close. And yet, when it comes to loyalty of viewership/readership and the depth of engagement -- two keys to any form of journalism in this digital pay-as-you-go world -- it's a much more interesting conversation. Take Twitter. ESPN has 11.4 million followers. Simmons has 2.91 million. But, the Simmons followers are drawn to him -- and his brand of journalism -- specifically. They want to know what he thinks about, well, everything. That's a very different -- and, I would argue, more valuable -- following than the larger ESPN horde that is mostly interested in score and injury updates.
(ESPN now has 18.8 million followers. Simmons has 3.69 million.)
The question Simmons's departure -- however it came about -- from ESPN raises is this: Does there reach a point at which a journalist's personal brand becomes, essentially, incompatible with a larger corporate brand? Simmons and ESPN stayed together for a very long time because it was mutually beneficial. ESPN provided the money and, at least at the start, the profile. Simmons provided the smarts, charisma and Internet sensibility/credibility.
But, the bigger Simmons got, the more he posed a problem, and in some real way, a threat to ESPN. People were beginning to think of ESPN and Simmons synonymously. And, while ESPN loved what Simmons brought them -- a younger, Internet savvy audience -- they could not (or would not) let their brand be defined by edginess.
The journalist-as-brand phenomenon remains a relatively new one on the media landscape. And, like all new things that seem to be nothing but good at the start, time tends to reveal as less-than-perfect. Simmons is the latest example of a journalistic brand whose very success was built on traits that ultimately became threatening to the bigger corporate brand for which he worked.
His departure raises a question that we don't have enough data to answer just yet. The question: Can big corporate brands ever be a long-term home for the likes of Simmons and his journalistic ilk?