That Bill Simmons’s 14-year run at ESPN has come to an end isn’t actually all that surprising. The relationship between Simmons and the brass in Bristol been rocky for some time now, and Simmons recently lost the support of his greatest champion, ESPN president John Skipper. What is surprising is the way in which it went down. This doesn’t look like a mutual parting, but rather an outright firing.
Again, here is Skipper’s statement announcing Simmons’s departure:
“I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’ contract. We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on. ESPN’s relationship with Bill has been mutually beneficial - he has produced great content for us for many years and ESPN has provided him many new opportunities to spread his wings. We wish Bill continued success as he plans his next chapter. ESPN remains committed to Grantland and we have a strong team in place.”
“I decided today ...” is a far cry from the neutral corporate-speak that usually gets deployed in situations like these. (“After a great deal of discussion and negotiations, ESPN has decided to move forward in a new direction, blah blah blah blah.”) This was an active decision by Skipper to push Simmons out the door, and more than one ESPNer has described this to us as a firing— one that Simmons found out about at the same time as the rest of us did.
The news was also a surprise to almost everyone in the ESPN and Grantland family. Former ESPN executive editor John Walsh, Simmons’s pre-Skipper rabbi in Bristol, had the news broken to him by us.
For what it’s worth, Simmons was carrying on like normal and pimping Grantland content from his account just minutes before the news broke:
This is as close to a public execution as someone of Simmons’s stature can experience these days, and the fact that it happened this way says a lot about how ESPN’s view of its most visible online talent—and the value he brings to the company—has evolved since his last contract, which, per ESPN oral-history writer James Andrew Miller, paid Simmons more than $3.4 million annually. (The Times’ sources put his salary at north of $5 million.)
As we reported last September, the strain on Simmons’s relationship with Skipper has been steadily increasing for years. Things started to go south in 2008, when Simmons received a surprise dressing-down from Skipper after he fired shots at then-colleague Rick Reilly. A series of public jabs at ESPN taken by Simmons, which were met with various disciplinary acts, continued to sour the relationship over the next few years, but a new contract in 2010 and the launch of Grantland smoothed things over for a bit. Last year, however, Skipper’s anger flared up with surprising intensity when Simmons was hit with a three-week suspension for saying critical (and entirely non-controversial) things about Roger Goodell.
And that brings us to today, with Skipper summarily dispatching Simmons. Given the timing of Richard Sandomir’s report that broke the news, ESPN’s scramble to put out a statement, John Walsh’s ignorance as of last night, and Simmons’s continued promotion of Grantland work, it feels like a spur-of-the-moment thing. Skipper, according to multiple sources, really was angered beyond all reason by Simmons’s appearance on The Dan Patrick Show yesterday; employees are barred from going on the former ESPNer’s show without obtaining prior permission. Miller, more plugged into Bristol than just about anyone else, called it “the tipping point.”
The timing is vicious, even separate from the surprise. Simmons’s contract runs through the end of September. Rather than waiting out the string, Skipper made the announcement today, making it so that Simmons can no longer use ESPN’s offer as a bargaining chip as he enters negotiations with prospective employers. Whether this was Skipper’s intention or not, he’s functionally cost Simmons six or seven figures wherever he lands.
It’s a strange thing. Skipper and ESPN spent nearly 15 years signing checks and dealing with the occasional Simmons-related headache, so why make this move now, four months before Simmons’s contract is even up? It can’t just be the petulance (he’s always been petulant) or the money (money has never really mattered to ESPN) that brought down the axe. Given all the circumstances, this sure looks like Skipper simply deciding that ESPN just flat out doesn’t need Bill Simmons anymore. If the value of Simmons’s name still outweighed all of his baggage, there’s no reason the company wouldn’t have continued to negotiate toward a new deal for the next few months. Instead, Skipper hit the eject button when nobody was expecting it, and he doesn’t even seem all that concerned about the Simmons-less future (via The New York Times):
Grantland, the sports and entertainment site run by Simmons for ESPN, will be unaffected by his departure, Skipper said.
“It long ago went from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own,” Skipper said.
The thing is, Skipper may not even be wrong to believe that Simmons’s value to the company is at this point minimal, or at least vastly outweighed by what he costs. (Everything we’ve heard about Grantland’s traffic numbers would back this up.) He gave them 30 for 30 and Grantland, but ESPN certainly has the money and infrastructure to keep those things going without Simmons, who at this point doesn’t do much but write the occasional mailbag column, record podcasts, and host a basketball TV show that nobody watches. It’s almost cruel for ESPN to so suddenly jettison a longtime superstar who brought so much to the company (even as they made his career), but it’s also a satisfyingly ironic way for the Boston Sports Guy to go down. After all, it’s the same type of cold-blooded move his beloved Patriots would have made.