It was known as the the “Bill Simmons parlor game,” a term coined by Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch to describe the rampant and irresistible speculation among sports media watchers regarding the influential sportswriter’s next career move when his ESPN contract expires in September.
As someone who has covered the sports media as a beat for a half-dozen years and has observed it for — well, pretty much as long as I’ve known how to turn on a television — I couldn’t resist dabbling in that parlor game too.
And I was confident my semi-educated hunch would prove an accurate one. I believed Simmons would remain at ESPN for what seemed the most fundamental of reasons: the relationship was mutually and massively beneficial for both Simmons and the network.
ESPN gave Simmons, whose ascension began with word-of-mouth appeal in the late ’90s at Digital Cities Boston, not just a platform, but multiple platforms.
In his 14 years at ESPN, he not only became arguably the most famous sports writer in the country, he also became a full-fledged sports media impresario and innovator, developing his own outstanding offshoot site, Grantland, as well as masterminding the genesis of the idea for the “30 for 30” film series.
What did Simmons give ESPN? Prolific production and massive traffic in a coveted demographic, which more than justified his reported seven-figure annual salary. His freewheeling writing style provided a sense that the network wasn’t as staid as its image.
And ideas. Those innovative ideas that made one think: This is so obvious, why weren’t we doing it all along? For instance, “30 for 30” is such a success that it’s become part of our lexicon. When something improbable or instantly memorable occurs in sports, your buddy will say, if you don’t beat him to the thought, “There needs to be a ’30 for 30′ on this.”
Turns out my parlor game logic was as backward as the notion that a sports writer couldn’t make a name for himself without working a newspaper.
The opposite was true. Perhaps even truer.
Neither Simmons nor ESPN needs the other. And come September, which his contract expires, they will no longer have each other.
ESPN president John Skipper revealed to The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir Friday that Simmons will leave the network when his contract expires.
“I’ve decided that I’m not going to renew his contract,” said Skipper. “We’ve been talking to Bill and his agent and it was clear we weren’t going to get to the terms so we were better off focusing on transition.”
The news was not stunning — Simmons said in a recent podcast that he’d come close to leaving ESPN in the past, and his three-week suspension in September for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar seemed to bring a heightened level of animosity to the employer/employee relationship.
But the timing of the news was a huge surprise. ESPN clearly wanted to get out in front of the news cycle on Simmons’s departure, to have its story out there before he told his side. But with four-plus months remaining on his deal, it’s telling that ESPN decided now to halt negotiations, acknowledging in essence that the relationship is no longer salvageable.
ESPN management is renowned for its belief that no individual talent or brand is truly essential to the company, let alone irreplaceable. Simmons was immensely popular, but the network is too wide-ranging in scope to be damaged by his departure. On the other hand, Simmons is immensely popular, and while leaving ESPN may restore some of that old sense that he is an underdog, the reality he will be as coveted as any sports-media free agent has ever been.
Will he join Fox Sports, where former ESPNer Jamie Horowitz recently was hired as an executive? Will he go out on his own, perhaps with venture capital backing, like Glenn Beck, Dan Patrick or his friend Adam Carolla? Will he rip ESPN before he leaves ESPN? Will he leave ESPN sooner than September?
And what becomes of the superb Grantland staff? Skipper told Sandomir the site will remain ESPN property.
“It long ago went from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own,” Skipper said.
That’s true, but the reason that happened was largely because of Simmons. The appeal of joining the site for many of the writers was the chance to work with Simmons. How many will follow him to his next destination?
It’s not just about the Grantlanders, though. Any internet-centric sports voice of decent-sized audience and accomplishment owes Simmons a debt of gratitude.
Simmons’s success — initially as an online sportswriting pioneer, and then later his various other aforementioned endeavors — was the result not only of his undeniable talent, but often of superb timing.
The talent remains. But his timing? We’ll have a better sense for that when we know where he ends up.
That’s why the parlor game is now as fascinating as it has ever been.