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The chatter at ESPN’s upfront presentation Tuesday morning centered on Bill Simmons, conspicuously absent since ESPN president John Skipper abruptly announced Friday that he would not renew Simmons’ contract.
“It was business,” Skipper said in a post-upfront scrum with reporters, adding that his decision does “not detract from the appreciation I have for Bill Simmons.”
Skipper characterized Simmons as a “brilliant” writer and editor who delivered “tremendous value” to ESPN. But in the end, he said, it came down “what he wants to do and what we want to do … and deciding if it’s going to be a match. And we decided that ultimately, [it] wouldn’t be.”
Skipper would not say exactly why talks broke down — last March he told The Hollywood Reporter that he intended to renew Simmons’ deal — but he did admit that the impasse was not about money. “We’re a big company. If it was just dollars and cents, we would have figured something out.”
And he admitted that Simmons did indeed find out that his career at ESPN was ending when the New York Times tweeted its story about Skipper deciding not to renew Simmons’ contract.
Skipper would not comment on whether the network’s lawyers are now negotiating an exit agreement with Simmons. But he asserted: “All is cordial,” adding that he hopes that “all parties” will avoid a “public fracas.”
Simmons, who has more than 3.7 million followers on Twitter, has been relatively quiet on social media. And he has offered nothing at all about the situation with ESPN. His $5 million contract extends until the fall and likely has a non-disparagement clause. Skipper said Disney CEO Bob Iger played no part in his decision to part ways with Simmons. (Simmons and Iger had developed a friendship over the years, but sources close to Simmons say that relationship has deteriorated recently.)
“I want to be definitive about that,” said Skipper. “This was my decision. Bob and Bill have been friends, and Bob is an admirer of what Bill does. And I don’t do anything like this without telling Mr. Iger. But he’s put it long ago on me [to make personnel decisions].”
Simmons has had a successful, memorable and rocky 14-plus-year tenure at ESPN, where he built digital powerhouse Grantland and also was integral in creating the network’s critically praised 30 for 30 documentary franchise.
At a network chock-a-block with provocative voices, Simmons’ was one of the loudest. He was unafraid to criticize the sports world’s most powerful, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. A profane tirade against Goodell last September on SImmons‘ podcast The B.S. Report earned him a three-week suspension, without pay. And last week on Dan Patrick‘s radio show, Simmons took another swipe at Goodell, saying the commissioner lacked the “testicular fortitude” to impose a punishment on the New England Patriots for deflating footballs until he was able to gage public sentiment. (Goodell suspended Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games next season. Brady is appealing the suspension.)
Simmons has always been close to Skipper, who was a reliable defender even before he took over as president of ESPN in 2011 from the more buttoned-up George Bodenheimer. But sources say their relationship has frayed in recent months. Still, Skipper’s surprise announcement left Simmons “reeling,” another source close to Simmons told THR. In fact, the day before his interview with the Times, Skipper had a business call with Simmons’ agent James Dixon, never betraying that anything was amiss.
It’s unclear what Simmons will do next. His strengths hew toward blogging, writing and social media rather than broadcasting or color analysis. So his next move is likely to be in the digital arena, though a television component would not be unusual. Simmons has maintained a friendship with former ESPN executive Jamie Horowitz, who next week takes over as head of programming for Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Turner Sports also is focused on its digital assets, which include Bleacher Report.
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