HBO’s announcement last Friday that they were cancelling Bill Simmons’ Any Given Wednesday after just 17 episodes (including tonight’s final episode) prompted plenty of discussion, and now ESPN’s Dan Le Batard has weighed in. In the second hour of The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz Wednesday, Le Batard talked about how it was disappointing to see Simmons’ show cancelled so soon both for him and for the other opportunities that could have created, how he believes the exact same show would have been a hit for ESPN, how leaving ESPN seems like a mistake for many, and how ESPN personalities are “disposable.” Here’s the clip:
Le Batard starts with a discussion of how he thinks this would have worked at ESPN.
“That bummed me out because HBO’s not going to do that ever again. They’re not going to do the sports thing with Joe Buck or Bill Simmons. It bummed me out because I like Bill, and you need to allow a show time to find its voice. 15 shows isn’t enough. But it bummed me out most because of how many opportunities it could have created. But it’s yet another reminder: do not leave ESPN, man! ESPN is a monster platform that is responsible for all of our successes, and that same show that he did would have been a success at ESPN. The same show, no difference, exactly done as he did it, would have been a success, and he could have done it for as long as he wanted to do it at ESPN! And HBO said nope after just an unbelievably short run.”
Stugotz says it’s tougher for programming like this to stand out amidst HBO’s shows, and that this might have been seen as more unique at ESPN. Le Batard says “I think it would have gotten critical acclaim at ESPN for being so different, but you compare it to Bill Maher and John Oliver and what they’re doing at HBO, and even HBO’s Real Sports. The standard becomes so high, and they didn’t give that any time. That’s a remarkable amount of time.”
There’s then a discussion of how they think this (and the previous Joe Buck Live) will prevent HBO from trying something similar again, and then Le Batard says “ESPN can make anybody. Anybody!” in reference to how their show has done in its national time slot. He then talks about the support he’s received from ESPN, especially in occasionally diverging from sports (which their local management apparently weren’t as happy about last Friday when it came to a mangled penis story), and about the rising diversity at ESPN Radio. This then leads to Le Batard criticizing Simmons for leaving ESPN:
“The freedom that they give you to paint outside the lines, I don’t take that for granted at all. And I think it’s one of the dangers in doing what Bill did. Now, he’s fine, he’ll make a lot of money and he’ll have success, but man, be careful leaving this place! Because your reach here and what those four letters can do for you…ESPN at this point isn’t merely a name to sports fans. It’s a habit. And ESPN, I know many of you have a lot of objections to a lot of the things ESPN does and think ESPN does a lot of crap, and ESPN does do a lot of crap, but it is a habit! And there are very few things in entertainment now that are that.”
Stugotz then says “He would have made all of those things here, he was making a lot of money here, and I know Bill very well and I like Bill too and I feel bad for what happened with his show, but Bill cares about being relevant.”
Le Batard says “You have to be careful leaving this place because very few have made it happen. And one of the afflictions that comes with ego is the idea that you’re responsible for your success and that ESPN isn’t. And you’ve got to be crazy. Because they could put ANYBODY in these positions and make them famous and make them powerful. And by formula. Everyone here is disposable, enormously so, uniquely so, weirdly so. You think the NFL is disposable?”
Stugotz interjects “Even me?” and Le Batard lets it hang for a few seconds, then says “No, not you, Stugotz, you’re the one thing in the history of the company that’s not disposable.”
These guys are somewhat right that ESPN platforms have made many into stars, and that leaving ESPN hasn’t always worked out well (Keith Olbermann, Michelle Beadle and Josh Elliott are among those who didn’t find much success in their first post-ESPN stint). However, this glosses over how this exit was about ESPN pushing Simmons out, not him deciding to leave. It also doesn’t mean that everyone who leaves ESPN is doomed to fail (Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd are finding some success on FS1, for example) or that everyone at ESPN is interchangeable (look at how First Take‘s ratings have plummeted since Bayless’ departure), or that people will watch just anything that happens to be on ESPN.
It’s notable that Simmons did have TV platforms at ESPN; his time on NBA Countdown didn’t go well at all, and his short-lived Grantland Basketball Hour (which wasn’t too far from Any Given Wednesday in some respects) was fine, but not exactly blowing people away from a critical or audience perspective. Presuming that Any Given Wednesday would have been a hit on ESPN just because of the channel seems off, especially given the show’s identity crisis. It may well have worked, and it probably would have been given more time, but it’s far from a certain success as an ESPN show.
It’s also worth mentioning that Simmons is making more money from HBO and seems to have substantially more freedom. For all Le Batard’s talk of ESPN supporting him and his desire to push the envelope, this is the same company that handed Simmons a three-week suspension for calling Roger Goodell a liar, a Twitter suspension for critiquing First Take, and eventually opted not to renew his contract after he questioned Goodell’s “testicular fortitude.”
ESPN’s history of supporting its people and their desire to be creative and push the envelope is mixed. Yes, they absolutely have done that in some cases, but they’ve absolutely cracked down on their talent in other cases. This is a network where president John Skipper has described the discipline policy as “an electrical dog fence” and vice-president and editorial director Patrick Steigman has said “We don’t treat everyone the same but we treat everyone fairly.” It’s a network that’s supported a bunch of Le Batard’s stunts, but cracked down on Simmons for others. ESPN is also not the only place in sports, and while it’s still the dominant one, that doesn’t mean anyone who leaves is irrelevant.
Le Batard has some valid points here, especially when it comes to HBO perhaps pulling the trigger too soon on Any Given Wednesday. He’s also right that ESPN comes with somewhat of a built-in audience, that many people can use that to become stars, and that it’s hard for many of them to find similar success outside ESPN. However, those general observations aren’t necessarily germane to Simmons’ case (especially as he didn’t decide to leave), and they don’t hold up in all cases; not all ESPN personalities are disposable or interchangeable, not everyone who leaves fails, and not every show on ESPN is guaranteed to be a success.