ESPN Wins The Courtship Of Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons is close to re-upping with ESPN, people familiar with the situation say, putting an end to speculation that he might head for a competitor or strike out on his own when his contract expires at year's end.

An announcement could come as early as next week (maybe in time for television's upfronts). Simmons declined comment; in a prepared statement, ESPN said that "we aim to keep Bill on board with us for a long time."

ESPN, we're told, was always confident in its ability to keep Simmons in the fold, and no hard push ever materialized from other suitors.

The deal makes plenty of sense, but not so long ago, Simmons and the World Wide Leader seemed destined for divorce — or at least some intense marriage counseling. The Sports Guy signed a four-year contract extension in the spring of 2007, but the next year the two frequently appeared at odds. At various points in 2008 ESPN canceled a Barack Obama appearance on Simmons's podcast; Simmons groused publicly that "certain promises were not kept"; and an NFL Picks column was quashed under mysterious circumstances.

But with the exception of Simmons's brief Twitter suspension for lambasting Boston radio station (and ESPN affiliate) WEEI, things have gone much more smoothly of late. When Simmons feuded with ESPN alum Keith Olbermann on Twitter this spring, ESPN Kremlinologists noted that both ESPN.com editor-in-chief Rob King and executive editor John Walsh — Simmons's mentor — came to the Sports Guy's defense, with Walsh observing dryly that "we have fond memories of [Olbermann's] collegiality and counsel for executive decision-making."

Simmons, for his part, added intrigue to the contract speculation by putting together a heckuva walk year. He continued to craft popular columns and podcasts, served as executive producer for ESPN's well-received "30 for 30" series of sports documentaries, and saw his mammoth Book of Basketball top the New York Times bestseller list. Not a bad run for a media free-agent-to-be.

So why will the 40-year-old Simmons stay home? Because while returning to ESPN may be not be the most dramatic scenario, it more than serves both parties' interests. Simmons is ESPN's biggest Web star, but he owes no small part of that stardom to ESPN's reach and promotion. And ESPN offers him the opportunity to pursue his many different interests under the same roof.

"It's a situation where both need each other," Sports Illustrated media reporter Richard Deitsch says.

Assuming a deal is reached, speculation will inevitably turn to contract terms. What's the Sports Guy worth to ESPN, anyway?

In raw numbers, not as much as you might think — which reflects that ESPN's primary business is still television, not the Web. It's TV that drives the bulk of ESPN's $1.53 billion in annual ad revenue, and Simmons's Web popularity has yet to translate to TV.

Let's do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Back in November, comScore said that Simmons's column had averaged 1.4 million pageviews and 460,000 unique visitors a month over the previous six months. His podcast, the B.S. Report, is typically downloaded 2 million times a month. The Book of Basketball sold more than 208,000 copies in 2009. And the Sports Guy has 1.19 million Twitter followers. (More on them in a moment.)

Given an estimated ad rate of $10 per 1,000 views (CPM in Web lingo), Simmons's columns would be worth some $168,000 a year to ESPN. The podcasts are presented by Subway, while Miller Lite also sponsored a weekly Simmons NFL pick — but both of those sponsorships are likely part of larger multimedia crossover deals with ESPN. It would be a stretch to credit more than $400,000 of that money to Simmons, or to say those sponsorships wouldn't have been attached to other Web content in his absence. The Book of Basketball — published by ESPN Books and Ballantine — has likely brought in nearly $300,000 for ESPN (and considerably more than that for Simmons), but not even the prolific Sports Guy can write a bestseller a year.

But the raw numbers miss a big part of Simmons's value to ESPN — which is where those 1.19 million Twitter followers come in. "How many publications would like to have that kind of readership right now?" asks Sports Business Journal's John Ourand, who notes that while Web dollars are a fraction of ESPN's overall revenues now, they're growing.

"Extrapolate 10 years down the line and you can see the Web becoming a major part of the business," Ourand says.

Twitter's admittedly a rough index, but there's no doubt that Simmons is a demographic Pied Piper for 20- and 30-somethings, as Thursday's Twitter-engineered serenade of LeBron James demonstrated. Maintaining a connection with that valuable but restless young sports audience will help ESPN chart its own future, and it reassures youth-conscious media planners that ESPN is the right partner for their ad buys.

So what salary does all that translate into? One imagines that Rick Reilly's name has come up in negotiations between Simmons and ESPN: Reilly reportedly pulled down a "redonkulous" five-year, $17 million deal when he agreed to jump from Sports Illustrated to ESPN back in 2007, but he isn't nearly the draw Simmons is among younger readers. If we had to guess, we'd put Simmons's new contract somewhere south of redonkulous, but at least in the vicinity.

Simmons's appeal to younger readers wasn't lost on ESPN's competitors. They covet that audience, too, and know that Simmons is a rare sportswriter who can bring a guaranteed audience with him, one that would substantially elevate any other sports property in terms of traffic and prestige (or one that might help create such a property from scratch). Who could potentially entice the Sports Guy became the sports-media parlor game of 2010. Simmons, with his periodic musings about being an underdog again, did little to discourage this.

Simmons certainly did have his suitors, the most intriguing of which, we hear, was Turner Sports, with its NBA ties (imagine him sharing a desk with Charles Barkley). But according to sources, overtures from ESPN's Web rivals never evolved into true negotiations, and Simmons always seemed to prefer sticking with ESPN.

The speculation was fun while it lasted, but barring some last-minute snag, none of those scenarios will come to pass. Why not? Because ESPN can offer Simmons plenty of money, a familiar setting, and the opportunity to dabble in everything that interests him: writing a nationally renowned column multiple times a week, recording podcasts and experimenting with Twitter, writing books, and helping to create new programs and projects on a variety of media platforms.

And so there they are. ESPN would survive just fine without Simmons (it is rapidly diversifying, as the growing number of ESPN Local outposts demonstrates), but it's better off with him. Simmons will still stick the occasional finger in his employer's eye, but he's used to the World Wide Leader by now, and their passions and priorities are much the same. As SI's Deitsch puts it, "The safest path for continued success is for them to stay together." If Simmons is a polymath, ESPN is, too — one that can accommodate his divergent interests with ease. For the Sports Guy, ESPN means not having to choose.

Jason Fry is the co-writer of Faith and Fear in Flushing and writes about digital media at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com.

Illustration: Jim Cooke