Bill Simmons’ three-week suspension for his podcast comments on Roger Goodell is incredibly harsh by ESPN’s standards and yet another example of the company’s inconsistent discipline policies, but it also may have significant repercussions for the relationship between Simmons and his employer. While that’s been a rocky relationship at numerous times, such as Simmons’ 2013 three-day suspension from Twitter for criticizing First Take or his 2009 two-week Twitter suspension for blasting WEEI hosts who went after him, it’s also been an extremely beneficial one for both sides.
That relationship’s arguably never been tested like this, however, and it’s certainly never been tested with such high stakes on the line for ESPN. Will Simmons accept his punishment and go back to being a valuable part of Bristol’s corporate empire once his suspension ends, or is this the beginning of the end for the relationship between The Sports Guy and The Worldwide Leader In Sports?
The answer to that question may well rely on Simmons’ motives for commenting on Goodell in such strong terms and essentially “daring ESPN to suspend him” for doing so. If that was just Simmons getting worked up and speaking without thinking, the relationship between him and Bristol could perhaps be salvaged. If this was an intentional plan to test how much latitude he has and perhaps even pave the way for an eventual exit, though, ESPN has played right into his hands and perhaps given him the chance to leave at the peak of his value. As Lana Berry noted on Twitter, Simmons’ suspension has given him way more attention than normal, and it’s caused even many of those who typically dislike him to defend him:
— Lana Berry (@Lana) September 25, 2014
— Lana Berry (@Lana) September 25, 2014
The ESPN-Simmons relationship has always been a little more precarious than most of the WWL’s relationships with its talent, and a large part of that is because much of Simmons’ appeal (and a lot of his success) is about him being an identifiable and marketable personality distinct from the network, and one willing to buck the status quo. Former ESPNer and current Boston Bruins announcer Jack Edwards has a fascinating quote on that front (in relation to Keith Olbermann’s 1998 departure, which carries plenty of similarities to the Simmons situation) in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun:
“The number-one thing that surprised me about ESPN was how little team spirit there was for a place that said its business was sports. If I said ‘I think you’re wrong ‘ to someone who was higher in the organization than I was, what I would get back was ‘You’re not a team player.’ …
The prevailing idea was that the network was much more important than individuals, and that prevented the star system from starting there. In many ways, Chris Berman is their greatest nightmare, because he is a fabulously talented, extraordinarily hardworking, obsessed, dedicated, funny man who relates directly one-on-one to everyone who’s ever watched him on television. They have done everything in their power to prevent anybody from ever getting that kind of power again. Their greatest corporate nightmare is to need someone more than that person needs ESPN.”
In 2014, it seems pretty clear that ESPN needs Simmons more than Berman, and you can make a case that Bristol might need Simmons more than he needs them. Berman has so many critics and so relatively few fans these days that any replacement might be seen as better by the public in general, and he’s currently only playing a limited (if high-profile) role at the network, mostly with his hosting of Sunday morning and Monday night NFL coverage. By contrast, while Simmons is far from universally loved, he has an incredibly large and passionate group of fans, and one that’s remarkably devoted to him. Consider what Malcolm Gladwell says about him in Those Guys:
“I honestly don’t believe anyone has a following like Bill Simmons has. He has attracted this insanely loyal fan base. It’s not just that he has a zillion readers, because there are lots of writers with a zillion readers; it’s that they’re so unbelievably involved and engaged and dialed in to what he’s doing.”
That appeal, and that following, is why ESPN gave Simmons his own personality-based site, Grantland (one that since spawned plenty of other entries into the genre). It’s why they made him a rare analyst who isn’t an ex-jock on NBA Countdown, why they’ve since given him his own Grantland Basketball Show, and at least part of why they were receptive to his 30 for 30 idea and had him involved with that series. It’s also why Simmons might have more of a chance at leaving Bristol more successfully than Olbermann, Erin Andrews, Michelle Beadle or many others. People don’t necessarily tune into Sportscenter or even more personality-driven programs like SportsNation based just on who’s hosting, but many of those who consume Simmons’ columns or podcasts are actively seeking that content because they like him and his style, not just because they were driven there by an ESPN firehose of traffic.
In theory at least, that makes Simmons’ following somewhat more portable than most, and it means he could be a very enticing acquisition for a competitor. Add the success he’s found with Grantland and the 30 for 30 series, and Simmons could be seen as a figure who could help a sports organization on multiple levels, not just as a columnist or podcaster. Moreover, his popularity’s currently at a high thanks to the way ESPN’s acted with this suspension; seriously, there might be no better figure to take a shot at right now than Roger Goodell and the NFL, and Bristol’s decision to (intentionally or otherwise) align themselves with The Shield by punishing Simmons for those comments has him looking like the whitest of white hats. Bringing in The Sports Guy in the wake of his feud with ESPN would also be a way to publicly tweak the WWL’s nose, and wouldn’t an organization like Fox (The ESPN Alternative!) just love to do that…
Keep in mind that Simmons has publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with ESPN before, too, so a departure wouldn’t be out of the blue. Here are just a few of his quotes on Bristol from Those Guys, which came out in 2011:
“I don’t know if the company is designed for people like me, but we’ll figure something out. It would be a whole lot easier for me if I didn’t love Skipper and Walsh. If that dynamic was removed, it would be cut-and-dried, and I would leave.”
“I need to find a way where I can operate in my own sphere and not deal with Bristol as much.”
“You know, it is interesting that the really passionate people who don’t like authority also seem to be the people who have had problems at ESPN in the past. [He specifically mentions Olbermann and Tony Kornheiser.] …But we’re all kind of like the same mold—very impassioned almost to a fault, and we just can’t believe ESPN works this way, and why can’t it work better, and it’s just like we’re a bad match for a company like that, and I think that’s why a lot of those people have left.”
So, the motivation for a potential Simmons exit may have been laid a while ago, and this suspension could mark the perfect impetus for him to head out. Disentangling him from all of his current contracts and ESPN responsibilities could prove time-consuming, of course, and a departure might not be imminent, but this could potentially get the ball rolling. Of course, Bristol has substantial incentive to try and keep him (making this suspension even more curious) given what they’ve done for Bill Simmons: The Brand (Bill Simmons: The Breakfast Cereal to follow) and how much they currently benefit from his work across platforms; they might come up with a way to keep him on board yet.
Despite the Worldwide Leader’s role in building him and his profile, there’s a good case to be made that ESPN needs Simmons more than he needs them right now, though. What’s left for him to do at the company? He’s become their best-known columnist, started a website, done a documentary series and even appeared regularly on TV. Sure, The Grantland Basketball Show would be a bit of a new challenge, but it seems likely any competitor could offer him something similar, plus the chance to build a new Bill Simmons Empire. Who knows if Simmons is ready to weep for the lack of worlds to conquer (Jack Donaghy quoting Hans Gruber misquoting Plutarch) at Bristol just yet, but there certainly are other worlds out there for him. Will he take on that challenge? Or will he return to being The Sports Guy Who’s Only Occasionally A Rebel Against ESPN?