The chatter at ESPN's upfront presentation Tuesday morning centered on Bill Simmons, conspicuously absent since ESPN president John Skipper abruptly announced Friday that he would not renew Simmons' contract.
"It was business," Skipper said in a post-upfront scrum with reporters, adding that his decision does "not detract from the appreciation I have for Bill Simmons."
Skipper added that Simmons is a "brilliant" writer and editor and delivered "tremendous value" to ESPN. He wouldn't say exactly why talks broke down, but he disclosed that the impasse was about "more than money."
And he admitted that reports that Simmons found out that his career at ESPN was ending when the New York Times tweeted its story about the network deciding not to renew his contract are correct.
Skipper would not comment on whether the network's lawyers are now negotiating an exit agreement with Simmons. But he asserted: "All is cordial."
Simmons has had a successful, memorable and rocky 14-plus-year tenure at ESPN, where he built digital power house Grantland and also was integral to the network's critically praised 30 for 30 documentary franchise.
At a network chock a block with provocative voices, Simmons was the loudest. He was unafraid to criticize the sports world's most powerful, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. A profane tirade agsinst Goodell last September on Grantland podcast The B.S. Report earned Simmons a three-week suspension, without pay. And last week on Dan Patrick's radio show, Simmons took another swipe at Goodell saying the commissioner lacked the "testicular fortitude" to impose a punishment on the New England Patriots for deflating footballs. Goodell suspended Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games next season. Brady is appealing the suspension.
Simmons has always been close to Skipper, who was a reliable defender even before Skipper took over as president of ESPN in 2011 from the more buttoned up George Bodenheimer. But sources say their relationship has frayed in recent months. Still, Skipper's surprise announcement left Simmons "reeling," a source close to Simmons told The Hollywood Reporter. In fact, the day before his interview with The Times, Skipper had a business call with Simmons' agent James Dixon, never betraying that anything was amiss.
It's unclear what Simmons will do next. Simmons' strengths hew toward blogging, writing and social media rather than broadcasting or color analysis. So his next move is likely to be in the digital arena, though a television component would not be unusual. Simmons has maintained a friendship with former ESPN executive Jamie Horowitz, who next week takes over as head of programming for Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Turner Sports also is focused on its digital assets, which include Bleacher Report.
Simmons has remained quiet on social media. His $5 million contract extends until the fall and likely has a nondisparagement clause. So he's unlikely to unburden himself publicly until his lawyers are finished negotiating an exit agreement with ESPN.
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