After months of rumors, ESPN made its split with Bill Simmons official Friday. It’s rare that a writer’s departure from a media outlet creates so much interest–even if the writer is one of America’s most influential sports personalities and the outlet is among the world’s most valuable media companies–but here’s why Simmons leaving matters:
1. Bill Simmons is a major brand
At a time when the monetary value of the written word has been diminished, people know Bill Simmons’ name and listen to what he has to say, making him a valuable asset. His columns at ESPN have historically been the most popular on the site. His podcast, the B.S. Report, was downloaded 32 million times in 2013, long before the format had a renaissance last year. His dead tree book, The Book of Basketball, is a no. 1 New York Times bestseller. And he is an established on-air personality on ESPN shows like NBA Countdown.
Thanks to his massive reach (Twitter following: 3.68 million and counting), ESPN allowed Simmons to start his own sports and pop culture website, Grantland, under their banner. That move helped pave the way for a wave of other media brands built around the distinct visions of their founders (see below).
Simmons is also responsible for some of ESPN’s most critically-acclaimed recent programming. He was the mastermind behind the award-winning documentary series 30 for 30. Originally conceived as a way to mark ESPN’s 30th anniversary, the films were so successful that the company decided to continue funding the ambitious projects for years to come.
2. His brand has sway
Simmons has reach far beyond sports. Guests on the B.S. Report have included President Barack Obama, late night host Jimmy Kimmel (whose show Simmons once wrote for), Girls creator Lena Dunham, Mad Men actor Jon Hamm and author Malcolm Gladwell.
Dunham has proved to be a particularly enthusiastic supporter. After Simmons was suspended by ESPN for calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” on his podcast during the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal and challenging ESPN to fire him, Dunham rallied celebrities like Judd Apatow to his defense on Twitter using the hashtag #FreeSimmons.
And other big editorial names listen to Simmons’ advice. When the statistician Nate Silver left the New York Times in 2013, it was Simmons (and Simmons’ dad) who helped convince him to turn his Five Thirty Eight site—known for predicting elections with freakish accuracy—into an appendage of ESPN structured similarly to Grantland.
3. His audience is loyal
Simmons re-imagined sports writing from the perspective of the fan, dispatching neutrality in favor of emotion and energy. When he began writing for AOL in 1997, the conventions of blogging didn’t even exist. Simmons’ stream of consciousness writing, filled with plenty of pop culture references, established a new kind of style, and his unabashed partisanship won over readers. (One column he wrote was titled “Is Clemens the Anti-Christ?”) He eventually branded himself as the “Sports Guy” for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine and spawned a legion of imitators. Wherever Simmons goes, his millions of fans will travel with him.
Still, losing Simmons won’t exactly be a death blow to ESPN, which is reportedly worth $50.8 billion. ESPN is an entertainment behemoth, and Simmons’ audience is just a small fraction of their overall reach.
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