Dismissed personality Bill Simmons took $5 million a year from ESPN but The Network still won

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I don’t know how much man crush-meets-professional-jealousy taints my opinion of former Grantland chief Bill Simmons. Let’s just say it’s somewhere between 20 and 90 percent.

By Andrew Pridgen

Bill Simmons hasn’t been an impressive writer since his AOL days…making fun of ESPN and has never broken a story as much as moved it one smarmy step beyond a press release. That’s why I can’t say I’m saddened by his break up with The Network as much as I am envious of all the coin he pilfered for showing up to work dressed like a Sigma Nu pledge and chopping it up with MTV also-rans about Paul Rudd.

The Grantland vertical he helped build is touted as formidable by the Bristol-based parent company, but its numbers don’t necessarily bear that out. ComScore estimates Grantland reached fewer than 5 million people/month over the last calendar year. Were it not backed by and teased to incessantly from the vowel and three consonant juggernaut you can probably erase a few zeros off that number. By comparison, Deadspin, the zeitgeist’s continuum of Simmons’ early voice on sports and pop culture, gets about 25 million-plus hits every 30 days; sports intel aggregator SB Nation about 14 million.

That Simmons was making $5 million/year, staff not included, at Grantland was probably a bigger writedown for ESPN than Playmakers. The network tried to squeeze other revenue from their best-compensated personality but with mixed results. Simmons’ matte and mostly unprepared on-air personae was most glaring as the disengaged host of the nearly unwatchable-unless-you’re-making-dinner-and-can’t-find-the-remote NBA Countdown. Being behind the mic instead of in front of the camera suited him better for his podcast the B.S. Report, but the success there may have been more attributable to fill-in-the-office-void work listeners.

Simmons did ESPN the favor of starting to sever the strings in his last contract year during the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal. He called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar for only taking action to suspend Rice after video showing the former Ravens running back and your second-round fantasy pick TKO’ing his fiancé in an elevator went viral. In the case of calling out Goodell, Simmons was right. But since his employer is a surrogate of the most successful nonprofit in the land, the Armageddon clock on his employ started then.

When you sign that contract with the corporate media devil (see also: Nate Silver) you’re expected to adhere to certain cultural norms. You don’t, in other words, visit McDonald’s for oysters on a half-shell and Calabrian spiced tofu. Nothing ESPN has ever done has jeopardized its megaton contracts with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and college football. Maybe there was some edgy stuff going on when Berman wore the Century 21 jacket and reported on roller derby and monster truck rallies but that was like three decades and four comb overs ago.

The scandals, the coverups and the chicanery of sport are better left reported by independent outlets. ESPN has it down when it comes to Cirque de Soleil intro highlight show graphics, sniveling prep school bully talking heads and running score scrolls. That’s about it.

The understanding if you’re Simmons or one the other .0000001 percent of bartender cum journalists who’ve cracked the “me-as-brand” code is working for ESPN is the modern-day equivalent of becoming a VP for Chrysler under Lee Iacocca. Show up to work, try not to burn your tongue on the coffee and enjoy those 36-hole rounds and steak dinners on a Tuesday.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Simmons in his second act. He is walking from ESPN with the milk crate of pens, paperwork and desk chotchkies like his Colin Cowherd bobblehead which he’ll spin donuts over in the parking lot. His brands stay with the company.

He will perhaps try to run a revenge start-up. Probably a bad idea. Should he pair with a billionaire interested in content (see: Matt Taibbi/Pierre Omidyar’s disastrous partnership of Joanie Loves Chachi proportions) the clashing of egos would stall out worse than Google Glass II.

No doubt, Fox, which has been searching for a voice outside of their commercial cutaway NFL robots for more than a decade—including misfires on the likes of southern-fried cracker hack Clay Travis, Dave and Busters manager trainee Jay Glazer and if only he’d gone to dental school Ken Rosenthal—could make a run at Simmons. He’d get paid, but that relationship would also carry a sell-by date and would be a bigger step down than Billy Joel’s second wife.

The best Simmons could probably do is start looking for available URLs and maybe get some WordPress help from the neighbor kid.

I think ESPN wins this round. They’re always going to be hamstrung by their association with the big machine of professional sport. That’s fine. That’s the real star of the network. Nobody turns to ESPN or its verticals to see their outsized heroes bashed. ESPN’s consumers identify themselves as fans foremost. And yet Grantland was never as much journalism as aspirational journalism. It was marketing posing as substance. And it will continue to be so and grow with younger, more eager and definitely less-expensive voices.

Though I will lament the departure of Simmons for his ability to wrangle Chuck Klosterman into a 10,000-word Life and Times of KISS magnum opus which wrung the very last drop of the writers’ hemoglobin, perspiration and throwaway knowledge of every. Single. KISS album. It was a modern-day Canterbury Tales. Still, I think it was only read by me and my best-friend/neighbor growing up, Chris.

Regardless of whether it was a bust, the KISS piece was a fine exhibition of what money and corporate backing CAN buy if you’re willing to play by the rules. Just as Simmons’ departure is a sign that support net doesn’t feel quite so cushy once you’ve had enough.

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