At SXSW, Bill Simmons gave a legitimately interesting interview to Re/code. It features Simmons sliding from passive-aggression to bluntness, but always railing against his ESPN bosses for not giving Grantland the funding or credit he believes it deserves.
It starts with Simmons complaining about, of all things, not having a sponsored studio to record his podcast. From there, interview Peter Kafka sets him up with a softball of a question.
Grantland looks like it's getting more and more ambitious — you guys are doing a lot more video, you're producing movies, and you have a TV show on ESPN now.
It's weird that nobody gives us credit for this. I think we have the best multimedia site right now. I don't even know who we're competing with. I don't mean to be conceited — we just do the most things.
I think the thing that gets us the most excited is just pushing, and seeing how many things we can do, and how the site can keep growing.
It's a pivotal time for the site. At some point we've got to either start growing, or we have to figure out what's going to happen.
So, about that. You have a contract that expires near the end of the year.
Everything here has to be read in the context of Simmons's impending free agency. He has had increasingly more personal conflicts with the Bristol machine, and more of them, culminating in a three-week suspension for going after Roger Goodell that saw Simmons feeling like he had lost the backing of his champions.
But this is business: Simmons believes he's done great work on the contract he signed in 2010, which made him, at the time, the second highest-paid "talent" at the network. Simmons doesn't think he's talent, though—he wants credit for being the muscle that convinced the network to fund 30 for 30, and for being essentially the GM of Grantland. And he wants the company to put even more resources into his projects.
I just think Grantland's at a crucial point now where we're doing the site that we have now really, really well. And that's been the case now for about 14 months. So now the question is, what does that mean to ESPN? I don't know. I don't know that it's a me decision — it's what does ESPN want from this site? Because if they just want it to say the same, it's going to stagnate a little bit.
(It should be noted that Simmons's tack in this interview—publicly agitating for better financing of his projects—is exactly what a manager ought to be doing for his staff.)
But when you do — it sounds like what you're going ask them to do is to invest more in your property, and you.
I wouldn't say that. That's a decision that has to come from them. They just have to think about what the goals of the company are. The reality is they make billions of dollars with TV rights. It's always good to dabble in different things. But sometimes when you dabble in different things, they turn into something. I think you have a responsibility at that point to decide "Alright — something happened here. This is a really good thing. Now what do we do?" That's not my decision.
But you've made some suggestions, presumably, to [ESPN head] John Skipper and those folks.
No, I haven't, actually. I haven't had a lot of contact with those people since last September.
That was the Goodell thing. Does that experience influence your decision?
I don't know. What I care about is the people I work with. Those are the people who know how much time we've put into everything. And we've never had … we've always been understaffed, always. We've had to pick certain people who are just overachieving, people that care about the product that we have. And, you know — at some point you want to have the right number of people, you want to start adding verticals and certain things. And if you're not prepared to do that, I don't know what's left.
So that conversation has to happen first. And then you have to have a conversation afterward about me, and what I want to do. I still feel like I have five years left, where I can work at this pace. In five years I'm going to be 50, and I don't know how hard I'm going to be able to work. I know how hard I work now. I don't know if it's going to be sustainable.
I think they take it for granted. Not just how hard I work, but how hard everybody works.
As someone who works at a site that competes with Grantland for talent (and usually loses), and as someone who can count, I would raise an eyebrow at the notion that they're "understaffed." But again: these are negotiations. This is how it works. Simmons will make noise about needing more backing from ESPN or he'll leave; ESPN may call his bluff, secure in the knowledge that Fox or whoever would never give Simmons the cash to hire 60 of his favorite writers. Still: it's newsworthy in itself that things have reached the point where the negotiations have gone public.