ESPN Severs Ties With Grantland Founder Bill Simmons

Had Tensions With Popular Sportswriter

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Bill Simmons.
Bill Simmons. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

ESPN is parting ways with Grantland founder Bill Simmons, who built his personal brand inside the biggest sports destination on television and the Web.

Mr. Simmons and the Walt Disney Co. unit were unable to reach agreement on an extension to his contract, which expires in the fall.

"I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons' contract," ESPN President John Skipper said in the statement. "We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on."

The decision ends a mutually beneficial and sometimes contentious relationship between Mr. Simmons and ESPN, whose internet site had 80.5 million unique visitors in March, the most of any sports media property, according to comScore data. Bleacher Report/Turner was No. 2 at 62.7 million, followed by Yahoo Sports/NBC Sports Network.

Mr. Simmons, 45, joined ESPN in 2001 as a guest columnist when he still wrote under the name "The Boston Sports Guy." Mr. Simmons, a Boston native, thrived by embracing his partisanship, eschewing the objectivity required of most sports reporters.

His profile grew over the next several years as he continued to write columns for Page 2, a section of ESPN, and began recording a podcast, "The B.S. Report." He wrote a couple of best-selling books, "Now I Can Die in Peace," an ode to long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans after their professional baseball team won a World Series, and "The Book of Basketball," an anthology that examined the arc of basketball history.

In 2011, Mr. Simmons founded Grantland, a website dedicated to the intersection of sports and pop culture and named after legendary Boston sportswriter Grantland Rice. He hired a number of prominent magazine editors and writers to help.

For all his success, Mr. Simmons never seemed content at ESPN, and often clashed with his bosses, including Skipper. He got in trouble for posts on Twitter, and was suspended in 2014 for his criticism of National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. That post included a line daring his bosses to suspend him.

The question now turns to where will Mr. Simmons land.

He could align himself with another traditional outlet, such as Fox, a digital outlet, or start his own company with backing from private equity firms or venture capitalists, said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant.

"Bill offers up that magic combination of content and clicks. He generates a huge amount of programming, video, audio and he gets a substantial amount of traffic," Mr. Berke said. "I could see private equity, Yahoo, Apple, Google/YouTube being interested. What Bill offers is a rare commodity in the midst of a fragmented, multi-platform marketplace. That makes him very valuable particularly in this day and age."

Mr. Simmons didn't respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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