Bill Simmons’ ongoing battle with ESPN executives reached a new height this week with his 3-week suspension.
The saga has gone well beyond being just a ‘sports story’ – NPR has weighed in, the Today Show mentioned the suspension, this story appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and everyone seems to have scalding hot takes on the issue.
Tension has continued to rise on multiple fronts between Simmons — the network’s most visible talent — and the old guard in Bristol, longtime executives who have been at ESPN for decades.
A confluence of events led to the blow up by Simmons on his podcast: His genuine outrage against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, his desire to crowbar his way into the national conversation on Goodell, and then there are these two rumors floating around ESPN:
* Inside ESPN, there has been a lot of talk about the struggles of Nate Silver’s 538 website. It hasn’t even been online for a year yet, but from lack of revenue to lack of traffic to lack of advertising, it is already being billed as a “disaster” by some at the network. [An ESPN spokesman said Friday about 538: “Traffic is ahead of where it was with the New York Times.”] More than a couple ESPN suits have been trying to pin these failures on Bill Simmons, I’m told. Their reasoning: Simmons wanted him, he got him, and the site is not delivering. You’re giving Simmons too much freedom, ESPN President John Skipper’s underlings complain. [Silver, you may recall, ran into these problems at the New York Times, another large media entity plagued by bureaucratic problems, partially stemming from a generation gap.]
* Multiple sources have told The Big Lead that Simmons has been attempting to get his pal of successful 30-for-30 fame, Connor Schell, into Skipper’s executive inner circle. Schell, a young executive on-the-rise, could add a completely different perspective to a team led by John Wildhack, the Executive VP/Production, who has been with the company since 1994. Ed Durso, one of the men who helped determine the Simmons suspension, has been at the network since 1989.
Add it all up, and you can begin to understand the venom Simmons unleashed on his podcast:
I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast … Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.
It might sound like a high school squabble, but it is happening in the middle of a company that generated more than $10 billion in revenue in 2013.
President John Skipper is actually faced with a challenging decision, given that Simmons’ contract is up next year.
Yes, it’s dangerous when you let the agenda from on-air talent outweigh the network’s agenda. And make no mistake, ESPN has one agenda: to make a handsome profit for Disney shareholders.
The formula is working.
But for how long? With all the important sports TV rights locked up, and Fox/CBS/NBC far from being a competitor (a Time Warner merger notwithstanding), how long do you let the old guard make pivotal decisions without input from the younger generation, before you run the risk of letting FOX/CBS/NBC gain ground?
The old guard has its fingers crossed they can pester and annoy Simmons to the point that he pulls the trigger on a plan they claim he’s been mulling after spending so much time in Hollywood: decamp from ESPN to a venture capital-backed solo operation with contributions from his West Coast buddies Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla.
Since the Simmons suspension, only one ABC employee has dared voice support on social media: Kimmel.
Whatever the case may be — Simmons stays, or he leaves ESPN for either a start-up or another outlet — don’t expect any of it to play out quietly.