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A version of this story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It was just two colleagues having a chat. That, say sources, is the way things seemed when ESPN president John Skipper spoke with agent James Dixon on May 7 — part of an ongoing series of talks about the future of Dixon’s client, sports personality Bill Simmons, whose contract was set to expire in September. There was no hint of the bombshell to come.
But between then and the following morning, something changed. That’s when Simmons learned Skipper was not going to renew his contract, which paid a reported $5 million a year — mortally wounding his ability to use the ESPN job as leverage in other negotiations.
He never was told directly but learned it from Twitter, after The New York Times broke the news. “I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’ contract,” Skipper stated with unusual bluntness. “We have been in negotiations, and it was clear it was time to move on.”
Sources say Simmons was “reeling” from being axed after nearly 15 years at ESPN, and the voluble journalist declined comment — but he likely will have many options as the most read sportswriter and a name brand.
Money might have had something to do with his departure (he reportedly wanted more than $6 million a year), as did his endless parade of controversy. Most recently, the very day that Skipper and Dixon spoke, Simmons lambasted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Dan Patrick‘s radio show — and not for the first time.
What Simmons will do next is unknown, but there is speculation he might end up at Fox Sports, where former ESPN executive Jamie Horowitz begins his new job May 18 as head of programming at Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Sources also indicate Simmons might raise money for his own company.
Grantland, the website Simmons founded for ESPN, will remain with the network, but sources say multiple staffers — including many writers Simmons hired — are debating whether to follow him. None had resigned at press time.
As recently as March, Skipper told THR his “intention was to renew” Simmons. But the journalist had become a lightning rod who had trouble being as circumspect as the parent company might like — including on the May 7 radio show, when he questioned Goodell’s “testicular fortitude.”
Whether Skipper’s thinking was influenced by Disney TV topper Ben Sherwood is uncertain, but sources say Simmons had lost the support of Disney CEO Robert Iger. “In the last year, [their relationship] has really dissolved,” says one insider.
Reps for ESPN and Disney had no comment.
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