This week marks another chapter in the seemingly rocky relationship between Bill Simmons and ESPN. The most popular personality at arguably the most visible sports media outlet in the nation has been suspended for three weeks for using explicit language to criticize and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Simmons also dared ESPN to punish him for his tirade.
It’s not the first time that Simmons and ESPN have butted heads, as the writer has been suspended multiple times for remarks he’s made about ESPN programming and its affiliates. The recent suspension is the most lengthy of Simmons’s tenure, and raises questions regarding his future with the company.
There was speculation that Simmons might leave the company when his contract with ESPN ended nearly four years ago, but the company was able to keep him by funding Grantland, the sports and pop-culture website of which Simmons is the editor-in-chief. If the latest episode forces Simmons to reconsider his position at ESPN, he could still be very successful away from the most popular brand in sports.
It’s hard to argue than any sports media personality is more popular than Simmons, and Sports Illustrated named him the most powerful person in sports media in March 2013. Unlike Charles Barkley and Bob Costas, who immediately follow him on the list, Simmons is a multi-platform star.
Simmons is probably best-known as a writer, and his columns are consistently among the most read on espn.com. His podcast, “The BS Report,” is among the most downloaded of any genre. He’s also been a TV personality, serving as an analyst on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” for two years.
Simmons’s ability to crossover on almost any medium makes him an extremely valuable asset.
“Something that is special and extraordinary about somebody like Bill is that they have a voice in a bunch of different platforms,” Betsy Morgan, President and Chief Strategy Officer at TheBlaze, told International Business Times in a phone interview. “He is a fantastic interviewer, a fantastic writer and he can cross across a bunch of different media. That’s always a big benefit versus someone who writes really well, but doesn’t like to interview or doesn’t like to be seen on camera.”
Morgan joined TheBlaze in January 2011, helping to launch the Internet TV network founded by Glenn Beck, a popular conservative pundit. Beck left FOX News in June 2011 when he was among the most prominent news personalities in the country. After leaving a major corporation and creating his own news entity, Beck has been highly successful. TheBlaze generated between $35 and $45 million in revenue per year, according to a Fortune report in May 2013.
Because of Simmons’s popularity, he would likely find success wherever he might go. Whether it be to another major sports media company or starting a website of his own, Simmons wields enough power that he will likely always be relevant. However, that doesn’t mean going elsewhere wouldn’t present any challenges to Simmons.
“You’re leaving somebody else’s platform, which could be a bigger platform,” Morgan said. “Certainly that’s the case with Bill and ESPN and now you’re on your own platform. How do you get your voice out? Your loyal audience is going to find you and continue to listen to you and be part of the conversation that you’re having, but how do you get your voice to resonate in bigger places?”
While Simmons might be the most irreplaceable personality at ESPN, the network and website would likely continue to thrive without him. Simmons is just a small part of what Forbes dubbed the “world’s most valuable media property.”
Two years ago, ESPN was valued at more than $40 billion. In April, Forbes listed ESPN’s worth at $50.8 billion.
In recent years, multiple sports networks have begun in hopes of competing with ESPN. However, FOX Sports, CBS Sports, and NBC Sports have done little to hurt ESPN's visibility. Even as some of the company’s biggest personalities have gone elsewhere, the network’s ratings and popularity have continued to increase.
"People follow stars, but the stars they really care about are on the field," Dennis Deninger, professor at the Syracuse University Dept. of Sport Management and former ESPN production executive, told International Business Times. "Personalities cycle in and out through the years. What lasts is the fan interest in and loyalty to sports and star athletes. The strength of the sports media outlets relies upon the popularity and audience of the sports products they deliver, not upon who the delivery men or women happen to be."
Simmons’s suspension has sparked some outrage across social media, and the hashtag “FreeSimmons” continues to trend on Twitter a day after the announcement.