As Bill Simmons enters his fifth day of silence in the wake of ESPN President John Skipper saying he would not renew his contract, (aside from a Patriots YouTube link) the intrigue and suspense over the next moves on the chessboard only increases. There are a TON of angles approaching the fallout to the decision, which is the biggest sports media story of 2015.
This article serves as an attempt at a comprehensive recap of 1) How we got here between Simmons and ESPN. 2) What exactly went down between the two sides. 3) Why ESPN decided to proactively part ways with Simmons when they did. 4) What will shake out going forward for Simmons and ESPN.
Did “Negotiations” Really Break Down?
What really happened behind the scenes and how close did the two sides ever come to reaching an agreement on a new contract?
Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead reported that negotiations between Simmons and ESPN broke down over the company balking at the high salary demanded by Simmons:
“Bill Simmons and ESPN waged intense contract discussions over the last few weeks, and this became the sticking point on Bristol’s end: It’s difficult to justify paying Bill Simmons $6+ million a year for the revenue he was driving.”
“The $6 million figure comes from a person with knowledge of the negotiations who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.”
“And from ESPN’s side of the table, the answer was, no, not for the salary he wanted.“
So it was money… or was it?
— jamesmiller (@JimMiller) May 8, 2015
Miller, who quite literally wrote the book on ESPN and is widely regarded as having the best sources and information at the network, doubled down again that it was not money in his article breaking down the divorce.
“Simmons made a point of not putting forth any specific requests—a pre-emptive strike against ESPN trying to say later, “We were unwilling to meet his demands so we didn’t renew him.” But no dollar amounts were specified, and no actual back-and-forth negotiations went on.
Minus any set of definitive demands from the Simmons team, ESPN negotiators didn’t have much to say “no” to. Both sides retreated, then ESPN never re-engaged.”
Looking elsewhere to try to resolve this conflict, it’s pretty easy to discount that money was not the issue. In multiple reports over the last few days, Simmons current salary has been cited at being $5 million a year. The jump to $6 million is just not significant enough to warrant such a dramatic and sudden parting of the ways.
Call me crazy, but I’m highly skeptical Simmons looking for a raise of 20% or more was not only rejected, but caused ESPN’s CEO to break off negotiations with four months left on his contract and led to a call to the New York Times to announce it to the world. The salary dispute angle just doesn’t hold much water (regardless of past admissions not vetting rumors) to the point that followers of the site took exception to it being promoted long after Miller’s reporting came out.
So What Caused The Sudden Divorce?
While the divorce was quite sudden, it was something that was obviously building over time. As Matt wrote earlier, plenty has come to light that Simmons’ relationship with John Skipper and ESPN had been more troubled than believed for quite a while. The cliff notes version goes something like this.
– Simmons was very unhappy about his infamous September suspension (we knew this).
– The suspension included 2 weeks unpaid (we knew this), but his paychecks were in full during the suspension. Around Christmas, the money Simmons should have been docked previously in September was taken away. This didn’t sit well with Simmons (we didn’t know this).
– Skipper and Simmons didn’t have a substantive talk since the fall, around the time he was suspended (new info).
– Simmons was vocal that ESPN’s ambition to grow Grantland seemed to be wavering (we knew this).
– Simmons was growing increasingly aware that Skipper’s inner circle was bad mouthing him and that ESPN was trying deemphasize his role in 30 for 30. (new info).
– Simmons going on The Dan Patrick Show and then doubling down in Roger Goodell bashing on a competing platform became the final straw.
Digesting this a bit, I think after the suspension and subsequent mixup on his paycheck (I’m sketpical it was done purposefully, although if it was that’s a move with bad intentions), both the Simmons and Skipper camps had their battle lines drawn and were not willing to give in without major concessions, hence the lack of any real negotiations. Both sides basically just thought the other side would come hat in hand and the leverage was on their side.
As Miller documents, internal support for Simmons was eroding and I imagine the kerfuffle with Mike & Mike may have been significant as that pair tends to avoid controversy and are generally well liked and low maintenance in Bristol.
I can’t help but think that Simmons might regret the Dan Patrick appearance even if he was resolved to leave ESPN. Because at this point, Skipper’s announcement means that Simmons has lost aconsiderable amount of leverage in negotiations with potential future employers. Simmons will still probably get whatever deal he wants, it’s just going to take a lot more effort from his camp that potentially leaves a bit of money on the table.
What Did ESPN Gain By Parting Way So Unexpectedly And Publicly?
At face value, it seems like a corrosive and unnecessary step that is more about settling a personal vendetta than a business decision. At a deeper level, this was about establishing the high ground in the narrative wars as well as sending a message to ESPNers disenfranchised by Simmons’ special treatment and that nobody is bigger than ESPN.
While I’d like to throw shade on Skipper for not calling Simmons directly and doing this with months to go in the contract, let’s think of the upside of blowing this up now like he did.
– Skipper followed the wise words of Rebecca Black and PR professionals everywhere that Friday is the best day to drop a story.
– ESPN was first with their version of the events that transpired and Skipper was able to set the direction of the story himself.
– Rather than having this leak out months later and potentially putting ESPN on the defensive, Simmons and his camp now have to react and play defense while also plotting his next move career-wise.
– Instead of another suspension for his comments on The Dan Patrick Show and another “#FreeSimmons” movement from Twitter, the nuclear option has most people intrigued on what Simmons will do next rather than ESPN being heavy handed in yet another draconian suspension.
The Immediate Fallout
The two big questions are as follows:
1) Will Simmons and his camp take the high road or will they look to take some shots at ESPN on the way out?
2) With four months on his contract, how will ESPN and Simmons navigate a formal parting of ways now that the cat is out of the bag?
Simmons strikes me as the “Fuck you, I told you so” type, who will not take kindly to how this played out. However, I imagine getting out of his contract early with the money owed to him is something both him and his camp would be keen on. ESPN knows they can’t risk Simmons being on any ESPN platform without some level of supervision. A best guess is that Simmons puts out a terse but fair statement next week and by the end of the month there is a more formal parting of the ways so this doesn’t loom over ESPN or Simmons. Keep an eye out for a possible agreement to be made where Simmons could keep “The BS Report” podcast name as it’s been pointed out that it’s owned by ESPN, who will likely get little mileage out of it going forward.