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Upfronts 2012: ESPN to Resurrect '30 for 30' Docs, Sets Title IX Series

Bill Simmons
ESPN's Bill Simmons.

The sports network is integrating the documentaries with Bill Simmons' website, Grantland.com.

NEW YORK -- ESPN will roll out a second helping of its 30 for 30 documentary series, the cable network announced Tuesday during its Upfront presentation to Madison Avenue ad buyers.

The first 30 installments aired beginning in fall 2009, with the concept of honoring ESPN's 30-year anniversary over a period of 15 months; but the documentaries kept coming, pegged to the ESPN Films banner even after the series' cutoff date. Hence, the official return of 30 for 30 this fall for a 2-year run.

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Cable's most lucrative network will merge 30 for 30 content with Grantland.com, the sports-and-pop culture website from ESPN sports columnist and podcaster Bill Simmons, an executive producer on the series. After each documentary airs, a Grantland-original, digital short film will then premiere on the site in addition to podcasts and oral histories related to the episode.

The first short, premiering Tuesday, is focused on ex-baseball giant Pete Rose, 71, as he signs autographs in a Las Vegas shopping mall. “The shorts give us a chance to tell stories that might be a little more clever or off the beaten path, and let us try things, like humor or animation,” said Connor Schell, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films. “The short films are really consistent with the type of storytelling that Grantland does every day. My hope is that the 30 for 30 brand translates into that space.”

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Meanwhile, 30 for 30 will explore such subjects as 1983's winning North Carolina State basketball team and Bo Jackson, who played both professional baseball and basketball. Also: a pair of Tribeca Film Festival docs, Broke (an athlete riches-to-rags story) and Benji (about the 1984 murder of a Chicago high-school basketball player).

Simmons recently spoke with THR about plans to resurrect 30 for 30. "I don't know if it'll be 30 or 35 docs, but I'm pretty confident it's going to happen," he said late last year. "It was so hard to get 30 last time, and the series probably hit about 70 percent of its potential. We were learning as we did it. As we explained it to directors, we could see their wheels turning, like, 'Yeah, that sounds great.' Then you could tell they were thinking, 'I'm not f--ing doing this for ESPN.' This time around is different, and I think Connor and I will be able to get whomever we want."

Simmons' longtime friend and former colleague, Jimmy Kimmel, joined Simmons in a prerecorded video in which sports guru sought advice from "King of the Upfronts" as he touted Grantland's successful first year and growth as it becomes a larger piece of the ESPN pie. (Kimmel will be back skewer sister broadcast network ABC, home to his Jimmy Kimmel Live, later Tuesday.)

Elsewhere during Tuesday's upfront presentation, which included appearances from Ray Lewis, Justin Tuck and Tyson Chandler, the sports-themed network announced Nine for IX, a series of films dedicated to covering the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 measure that demanded equal opportunities for female athletes. The films will launch in primetime on ESPN in July 2013 with a home on Saturday nights on Disney broadcast partner ABC. Nine for IX, which will be produced by female filmmakers, will also run across multiple platforms, including on ESPNW.com and come as the network continues to target women, which also includes a pact with Gatorade for Inside the Edge, a series of two-minute vignettes focusing on female athletes that will air on the network as well as online and mobile devices.