Bill Simmons Addresses His Exit From ESPN and Future At HBO

When Bill Simmons talks, it usually creates interest in sports media circles. He has an HBO Show, “Any Given Wednesday”, in development, and it debuts later this month. Last week, his brand new website “The Ringer” officially launched in impressive fashion. Plus he hosts a podcast which is regularly at the top of the iTunes charts.

The sports media star recently spoke to the Hollywood Reporter about the projects he’s involved in, leaving ESPN, and a myriad of other business related subjects. Here are the highlights.

On the developing tensions with ESPN:

After appearing on Dan Patrick’s show and mentioning that Goodell lacked testicular fortitude (Simmons says the comment was a joke, and built off of a wrestling term which he considers funny), ESPN president John Skipper, forwarded a note to Simmons’ agent, James Dixon, which said that the company would hold off on contract talks until closer to the September expiration.

Simmons isn’t sure still to this day if Skipper ever heard the interview, but feels that several of the ESPN President’s underlings whispered in his ear looking to create trouble. He compared the drama to high school nonsense.

Upon learning of Skipper cutting off contract talks with his agent, Simmons responded by firing off an email and informing ESPN that he was pulling out of the network’s upcoming coverage of the NBA draft. He sensed that the situation would escalate, and planned to go in the following day and inform his staff at Grantland, that he’d likely not be remaining with the company beyond his contract.

Before he could do though, Simmons woke up the next morning to learn that the New York Times was reporting that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Included in the story were quotes from Skipper who said “This is not personal. It’s business.” Simmons, said he was blindsided by the story, and disappointed since he had spent nearly 15 years working for ESPN.

Who Pursued Him After ESPN:

Once word was out that Simmons wouldn’t be back at ESPN, he did something he rarely does – he stayed silent. He mentioned that calls started coming in from media groups including Fox, Turner, Hulu, and Netflix. Even Silicon Valley companies Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Snapchat reached out to discuss ideas.

“These first-rate technology giants were all trying to figure out how to get into the Bill Simmons business,” said Simmons. Some were interested in producing his next project. Others wanted to hire him. He had dinner Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer who pursued bringing him to Yahoo Sports to run the sports platform, and he met with Showtime president David Nevins and his boss, CBS president and CEO Les Moonves.

Many of the possibilities intrigued him, but none appealed more than partnering with HBO. The cable network offered him his own weekly show, plus the opportunity to create or consult on other network programs and its digital brand, HBO Now. Simmons’ podcasts had room to expand and become network TV shows. His ideas for documentaries would be heard as HBO looked to increase their profile in the sports documentary space, and the company agreed to become a minority investor in his podcast network, and media site “The Ringer”. And oh by the way, an annual salary between $7 million and $9 million didn’t hurt either.

On Funding “The Ringer”:

“I had all of these people who wanted to invest, but one of my goals was to have as few people in my life as possible who would be like, ‘Why are you doing that? What’s going on here?’ said Simmons. He recruited Eric Weinberger from the NFL Network to run the company, and adds that he won’t rule out taking on additional investors but is satisfied with where things stand currently.

On his upcoming HBO Show “Any Given Wednesday”:

The show will debut on June 22nd, and Simmons says it’ll be a mixture of conversations about sports, culture and technology, combined with Bill’s snarky personality. Some have suggested that Simmons isn’t cut out for TV, which only adds fuel to his fire.

“Competitive Bill is definitely fired up about that. Nobody believed in us. I know how these things go and how easily you can fail, but I really think this has a chance.”

On the perceived issues with Magic Johnson:

When Magic Johnson left Countdown, reports speculated that a power struggle took place between Simmons and Johnson. Simmons vehemently denied those accusations. He says Johnson’s bigger issues were with the way ESPN mishandled Michael Wilbon. Being labeled as the force that caused one of the NBA’s all-time greats to leave the show irked Simmons.

“I was f—ing furious,” he says. “I was yelling at everybody. I was like, ‘What the f—? You guys f—ed this up. Why am I in this?’ And I just made it worse. I should’ve just not said anything and used that to my advantage for the next thing.”

Simmons believes that the story was planted by bitter people inside the Bristol headquarters, and it was the first time he realized that people resented his relationship with ESPN President John Skipper. He added that he knew instantly that the story would create tension with Skipper and result in a divide in their relationship.

On the way ESPN terminated Grantland:

When ESPN chose to move on from Grantland, John Skipper said “We lacked a full understanding of the bonding nature between Bill and those guys,”. Simmons says the way the network handled the termination of Grantland is the story that hasn’t been written, and Skipper’s remark wasn’t bright.

“Do you understand how dumb that is? I hired every single person who worked for me, it was my idea, and everything we did came out of all the relationships that I had with those people.”

He continued “They’ve now gotten rid of everybody who is a little off the beaten path. Ask yourself this: ‘Who would work there that you respect right now?’ ”

The article covers a number of additional topics including Simmons’ guest list preferences, why the HBO show was built for 30-minutes instead of 60 and taped rather than presented in front of a live studio audience, his family life, why he prefers to air at 10pm instead of compete in late-night, and much more. If you enjoy Bill’s work be sure to check out the full piece by the Hollywood Reporter.

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