ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series would not exist if not for Bill Simmons. Simmons came up with the idea, partnered with ESPN executive Connor Schell to develop it, advocated for it at every step of the process and helped keep it alive when some within the company thought it had run its course.
But although Simmons helped oversee years of success for the 30 for 30 franchise, he was forced from ESPN before the brand had its crowning moment: Ezra Edelman’s 2016 documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” which enjoyed universal acclaim and eventually won ESPN its first Academy Award.
Speaking on Jim Miller’s “Origins” podcast series, the latest episode of which was published Thursday, Simmons said he still resents being left out of the credits of the film.
What happened with the O.J. doc, it’s going to take a while to get over that one because they didn’t even put me in the credits. When it was promoted and stuff, I was never mentioned in any of that. And it was like, that was Ezra’s thing, I didn’t give notes on it, once it was developing and it was going, but to me the fact that the O.J. thing won an Oscar and that we even did it was the natural outcome of seven years of innovation. … To not even be in the credits for it, I thought was really petty.
Simmons also expressed bitterness about a New York Times article describing how ESPN stole the sports documentary space from HBO that did not mention his name. He said when that piece came out he felt “crushed” and “betrayed.”
Connor and I had been talking since 2007 about, someday we wanted to win a Peabody, we wanted to win an Emmy … and we wanted someone of high respect to write the piece about how we took HBO’s corner. That was a big thing for me even more than anyone else. The whole point of the [2007 initial] memo is that we’re taking HBO’s corner.
The last piece of that was the piece about 30 for 30 took HBO’s corner. Because at that point HBO was out of sports documentaries. They had stopped doing them. We’d basically killed sports documentaries at HBO after Ross Greenburg had been such a dick to us. So I didn’t know that piece was being worked on. I knew the writer was somebody they fed a lot of stuff to — as we found out a few months later when he was the person who reported that they weren’t renewing my contract — and the piece comes out, and I’m not mentioned.
It was a real problem. It really affected my relationship with Connor. I just couldn’t believe it. I don’t know how I wasn’t in that piece. It’s like, I don’t really give a shit about most of this stuff, but now you’re trying to rewrite what the history of something was. Especially like, the second series was dead and wasn’t going to happen, and we brought it back. Something like he O.J. thing just wasn’t going to happen unless we kept innovating. We were always a team and we were always together, and all of a sudden on that one we weren’t. It’s been a hard one to reconcile.
Greenburg commented on the interview, noting that HBO was still winning Sports Emmys for their documentaries in 2011 when he left the network (which the network did, for their Vince Lombardi documentary).
Bill Simmons. What did I ever do to you. The one day we spent together we had a great time? I will take the high road, but we were still winning Emmys for our documentaries at HBO through 2011 when I left for our docus. Respect what ESPN did with 30 for 30.
— Ross Greenburg (@RossGreenburg1) January 19, 2018
ESPN Films executive producer John Dahl said he and Schell mentioned Simmons to Times writer Richard Sandomir, who decided himself not to mention Simmons in the piece. Dahl, who spoke highly of Simmons throughout the podcast, said he understood why Simmons felt slighted. Sandomir did not appear on the podcast but did tell Miller in the email that he had not thought it necessary to mention Simmons in the article.
Dahl, Schell and other ESPNers were almost unanimously praising of Simmons, though then-president John Skipper said he objected somewhat to Simmons’ desire for credit.
In the end, Simmons said he felt wounded that after working for years on 30 for 30 he was not part of the “victory laps.”
The New York Times thing and the O.J. thing were kind of the victory laps of the whole thing, so to get cut out of that was weird, and I’ll never fully understand it.