ANTON RIPPON on the meteoric rise, and sudden fall, of a star columnist for ESPN
In Britain we have Jeremy Clarkson. In the United States they have Bill Simmons. Well, the parallel is not quite the same. Where the former presenter of Top Gear has been known to duff up someone who hasn’t sorted him out a hot meal, ESPN’s hitherto $5 million a year sports columnist, analyst and podcaster has simply grown too big for his boots it seems.
Simmons is as big a name in the US as Clarkson is in the UK. The former Boston bartender caught ESPN’s eye back in 2001 when his website, BostonSportsGuy.com earned him a job offer from the sports channel.
He enjoyed a meteoric rise. For ESPN.com he has written blogs, hosted a podcast entitled The B.S. Report (geddit?), co-created and served as executive producer of 30 for 30, an ESPN documentary project. In 2005 his book Now I Can Die In Peace, a collection of his columns, spent five weeks in the New York Times extended best-seller list. In 2007 Sports Business Journal named him the 12th-most influential person in online sport, the highest non-executive on the list.
Most significantly of all, in 2011 Simmons launched Grantland, the widely admired online magazine that grew into the web’s foremost home for long-form sports journalism, providing a link between his work on The B.S. Report and another of his columns, Sports Guy, to ESPN.com.
The New York Post described Simmons’ departure as a “shocking and sudden public dismissal”.
According to James Andrew Miller, co-author of Those Guys Have All The Fun, a history of ESPN, Simmons’s demise might be shocking but it is far from sudden. Writing in Vanity Fair, Miller says that the union of Simmons and ESPN has been a “bizarre, fabled partnership, with triumphs and setbacks and a seemingly endless stream of gossip and drama, both inside ESPN’s corporate campus at Bristol, Connecticut, and on the Internet.” So much like Clarkson, then.
There have been plenty of “incidents”, some public. When Simmons called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (an SJA lunch guest in 2013) a liar during a segment in his podcast, ESPN suspended him.
Simmons will not have been pleased when he checked his bank account just before Christmas to find that the suspension had, after all, included a two-week pay dock – worth around £100,000. Last Thursday, Simmons again attacked Goodell, accusing him of lacking “testicular fortitude”.
According to Miller, Simmons believed he knew what was best for ESPN “and wanted a spot and a voice at the table”, something that worked fine for projects like Grantland, but then Simmons got into a fight with ESPN’s NBA production team. Something had to give.
Last Friday, ESPN president John Skipper told the New York Times: “I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’s contract. We have been in negotiations, and it was clear it was time to move on.”
ESPN still owns 30 for 30, Grantland, and even the B.S.Report (maybe they might keep the initials anyway), but Miller feels that Simmons will come out of all this in good shape: “Simmons, meanwhile, has already had multiple offers and will no doubt wind up having more autonomy and, possibly, a bigger paycheck wherever he lands … ”
And we thought that Jeremy Clarkson could be a difficult character. Maybe it all comes down to testicular fortitude.
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