A week after ESPN president John Skipper announced his decision to not renew Bill Simmons’ contract, two primary theories have emerged for why ESPN is letting its most talked-about writer go.
1. Simmons’ projects didn’t generate enough ad revenue to justify his $US5 million salary.
2. The relationship between Simmons and ESPN had been on the rocks for a while, and the last straw was Simmons going on the “Dan Patrick Show” — which isn’t an ESPN property — and ripping NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a day before Skipper announced he was out.
Both theories were floated by ESPN biographer James Andrew Miller in Vanity Fair on Wednesday, and they have popped up in pretty much every post about why Simmons is out at ESPN.
The Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre reported ESPN would have had to give Simmons “$US6+ million” per year in a new deal, which wasn’t worth it considering the modest popularity of his two prestigious ventures, Grantland and 30 for 30.
“Simmons is the most powerful member in sports media, an innovator with the most popular podcast in sports, a vanity website, the ‘original blogger’ who carved out a niche as the Boston Sports Guy and smoothly transitioned to being a creator of the Emmy-award winning 30 for 30 series, but … were any of those ventures generating significant revenue?” he asked.
Deadspin’s Kevin Draper took a deeper look at Grantland’s numbers and concluded, “Grantland’s traffic is rough enough when put in context, but it is downright startling that the website is still in business when you consider its expenses.”
ComScore has its traffic at a modest six million unique visitors per month while ESPN’s internal numbers put it at 10 million, according to Miller.
The problem with this theory is that there’s evidence that ESPN doesn’t see Grantland as a traffic- and revenue-driver, it sees it as a prestige site. Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson reported last year that one digital media CEO heard “Grantland writers were completely shielded from traffic data and that there was little pressure on them to attract new readers.”
You can interpret that as a managerial failure on Simmons’ part (why isn’t he pushing for more uniques!?). Or, you can read it as a sign that ESPN is fine with a tiny corner of its media empire generating critical acclaim rather than traffic. ESPN is a $US50 billion company and ESPN sites generate 88 million uniques per month. It can afford to bankroll Grantland.
“If the Simmons/Grantland model was so financially weak, why hire quant star Nate Silver away from The New York Times and create FiveThirtyEight.com at great expense, or attempt a similar build on the still-under-construction The Undefeated under Jason Whitlock? Both of those worlds are Simmons-esque. If Simmons’s projects weren’t generating enough revenue to at least justify their existence, why bother trying that route again — and not just once, but twice?”
Which brings us to the second theory: Simmons and ESPN were feuding for a while and Skipper finally pulled the plug after the Patrick radio appearance.
ESPNers need permission to go on radio shows owned by other media companies. While Simmons reportedly told ESPN he was going on the Dan Patrick Show on May 7 to talk about Deflategate, it has been widely reported as the last straw for Skipper.
Miller writes, “The chief reason there was an abrupt announcement last week and that a drama-free, buddy-buddy ending didn’t happen is painfully simple, and simply painful: it was all because of Simmons’s latest appearance on the Dan Patrick Show, and his seemingly gratuitous slam at N.F.L. commissioner Goodell.”
On the show, Simmons said Goodell lacked the “testicular fortitude” to hand down the Deflategate punishments at the same time the Wells report was released.
Between 2009 and 2014 Simmons was suspended three times, all for criticising ESPN. The last suspension came last fall when he called Goodell a liar on a podcast and dared ESPN to admonish him for it. Simmons’ Dan Patrick Show rant didn’t explicitly mention ESPN, but when you consider the context — Simmons going on a non-ESPN radio show hosted by an ex-ESPNer who has been critical of the company and unloading on Goodell in the same fashion that led to his most recent suspension — you can interpret the whole thing as a shot at ESPN, and understand why it set Skipper off.
We’ve reached out to ESPN and are awaiting their response.