This breakup between ESPN and Bill Simmons was inevitable.
Fifteen years ago the two got together and it seemed like they were made for each other. Simmons was the quintessential unsports reporter. He didn’t give a damn about the locker room or the access to celebrity athletes. Instead, he cared about other fans and what their experience was like.
ESPN, the 800-pound gorilla of sports media, was intuiting the future of sports media and trying to translate it’s television dominance to the digital space. Simmons’ everyfan persona was perfect. His genius was his ability to connect his own everyday sports fan experience to the meaning of life. And he did it over and over again.
In a 2011 profile of Simmons a New York Times Magazine reporter declared, “Simmons is more than just a fan; he is the fan, the voice of the citizenry of sports nation.”
He wrote about 13 levels of losing. He chastised fellow columnists about the blinders that kept them from seeing performance enhancing drugs. He spent way too much time and too many words on the Karate Kid movies.
And of course, he wrote about the death of his dog, Dooze.
A man-boy among man-boys, Simmons reveled in the low brow, including the occasional nod to porn.
Grantland debuted four years ago and it was likely the climax of Simmons’ relationship with ESPN. Sports startups were proliferating like weeds, dragging down the overall quality of sports journalism. Simmons envisioned a sports and culture site that made space for good writing and critical thinking. At the time, I was serving as the lead writer for the Poynter Review Project (fancy name for the ombudsman) and I cheered the idea but critiqued the execution.
While they were great for each other for a while, last Fall when Simmons called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar and ESPN suspended him it became clear that the relationship was no longer mutually beneficial.
Simmons will do fine. He has 3.6 million Twitter followers. He could start his own small empire or he could get scooped by another sports media organization willing to give him a long leash. And ESPN will be fine without him. Under the right editor, Grantland could mature into The Atlantic of the sports world.
It’s hard for big brands and big stars to maintain long-term relationships.
Fifteen years and one above-average baby with lots of potential – that’s a good run.