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ESPN President John Skipper on Bill Simmons: 'It was business'

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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."

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ESPN President John Skipper on Bill Simmons: 'It was business'
William 'Bill' Simmons, editor-in-chief of Grantland.com, speaks during a panel discussion at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, March 8, 2014. The SXSW conferences and festivals converge original music, independent films, and emerging technologies while fostering creative and professional growth. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 14: Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons of ESPN pose for a photo during the Sprint NBA All-Star Celebrity Game at Sprint Arena as part of 2014 NBA All-Star Jam Session at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on February 14, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Juan O'Campo/NBAE via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 14: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat speaks with sports analyst Bill Simmons during the NBAE Circuit as part of 2014 All-Star Weekend at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on February 14, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Bruce Yeung/NBAE via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02: Sports writer Bill Simmons speaks at the 2010 New Yorker Festival at DGA Theater on October 2, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images the New Yorker)
NEW YORK - APRIL 24: Writer Bill Simmons speaks at the panel and screening of 'Beyond Playing The Field' during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival at the School of Visual Arts Theater on April 24, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
HOLLYWOOD - FEBRUARY 18: *** EXCLUSIVE *** Bill Simmons and Jimmy Kimmel attend the ESPN Magazine's After Dark NBA All-Star Party at My House on February 18, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Tiffany Rose/WireImage)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 07: HBO's Bill Simmons speaks onstage during 'Ahead of the Curve - The Future of Sports Journalism' at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 7, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 06: Producer Bill Simmons (R) attends the premiere of Disney's 'Million Dollar Arm' at the El Capitan Theatre on May 6, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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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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