08 May 2015

Bill Simmons to leave ESPN: What's next?

(Hollywood Reporter)
Bill Simmons and ESPN are parting ways. According to Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, the two sides were unable to come to terms on a new contract after months of negotiations with ESPN president John Skipper saying that the differences were "about more than money." Simmons, who built himself into one of the bigger sports brands in media from his columns to his podcast, the B.S. Report, to the sports and pop culture website Grantland and to the successful ESPN documentary series 30 for 30, will leave when his contract expires in September.

So what is next for Simmons, Grantland, and the network at large?

One of the key ways that Simmons built his brand was by being outspoken and one way he got himself into trouble at ESPN was by firing his gun at his colleagues and the network itself. His conflicts with the network are all pretty well-known at this point, from ESPN pulling the plug on an interview with Barack Obama to getting suspended for calling WEEI "deceitful scumbags" and getting suspended after criticizing First Take. He also openly disparaged a number of his colleagues in the ESPN book Those Guys Have All The Fun and had a nice back-and-forth after Mike Golic took him out of context back in November.

Of course, the most recent and most famous case comes from Simmons's three week suspension in the fall after calling Roger Goodell a "liar" on the B.S. Report and daring ESPN to punish him. You can listen to what he said here or see what he said below:

On Goodell:
Not enough is being made of the fact that they knew about the tape and they knew what it was on it. Goodell, if he doesn't know what was on that tape is a liar.
And then regarding any sort of punishment for his comments:
I really hope someone calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. If one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner is a liar, and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Please, call me and say I'm in trouble, I dare you."
Simmons saw a great deal of support for his comments with the #FreeSimmons hashtag trending on Twitter shortly thereafter.

For their part, Skipper says that the incident played no part on the decision to part ways with Simmons but it did expose how a rift had grown between Simmons and Bristol. Not too long after the whole brouhaha, outgoing ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte said this:
It’s as if sports documentaries and literary sportswriting were Sports Guy inventions. HBO, anyone? Sports Illustrated at its prime? Point is, these are the current extensions of celebrated genres. Should Simmons ankle off, so long as ESPN keeps nurturing them and writers like Bryan Curtis and Wesley Morris stay at Grantland, and producers such as Connor Schell and Libby Geist keep running 30 for 30, all will be well.
And then in March, Simmons gave an interview to Re/Code in which he was pretty frank about ESPN and the amount of support, or lack thereof, they give Grantland.

But even with all of that, I still had been thinking that Simmons would remain at ESPN. Even with all the shenanigans, the two were still a good fit for each other and it would have been hard to see Simmons somewhere else. However, ESPN saw it too much to pay Simmons a $6 million yearly salary considering that Grantland has never been a massive online draw (although Simmons notes that unlike other sites, the site's lengthy articles are not the sort of click bait that we see on other sites). And it appears that Simmons' appearance on the Dan Patrick Show yesterday was ultimately the "tipping point."

So now that Simmons is a free agent, what's next for him? As Jason McIntyre notes in the piece linked above, it is very early in this process and there is plenty of time before Simmons is actually a free agent. The landing spot may not be known yet but one would think that Simmons would have plenty of suitors.

Fox Sports could give Simmons a sizable platform on Fox Sports 1 and on their website, where Clay Travis runs his own site seemingly independently of Fox's editorial control (which has caused some issues of late), and they have got former ESPNer Jamie Horowitz running FS1 and FS2. Turner Sports could give him a platform on their NBA coverage (and on NBA TV) as well as on Bleacher Report (who he has criticized before). Vox Media has built sites around personalities before (like Ezra Klein and Vox) and could give him a platform on SB Nation. Yahoo could certainly use a big name and you can never rule out Google/YouTube in trying to do something else.

What could perhaps be the most desirable option for Simmons is to strike out on his own, find some investment and run his own site independent of anybody but himself. That said he would be free to write anything he would like. However, building a platform from scratch is always a risk and could leave Simmons out in the wilderness.

What I am really interested in seeing is what is next for Grantland. As noted already, the website has never been a huge internet draw and his columns (however infrequent they became) always were the chief drawing point of traffic to the website. The site itself will move forward but as to how it will without Simmons, who only has hired everybody that works together, will be interesting. The site's list of contributors is very strong but who knows who will stay and who could potentially follow Simmons wherever he lands.

All in all, it truly is the end of an era. While Simmons has his fair share of detractors (you could say that again), he was one of the true internet blogging pioneers that helped paved the way for sites like Deadspin, The Big Lead, all the way down to little websites like mine. Determining what could be next for The Sports Guy will be something to watch this summer.

No comments:

Post a Comment