Under The Bleachers: End Of An Era At ESPN

Above: Bill Simmons departing ESPN is the end of an era
Above: Bill Simmons departing ESPN is the end of an era

It has now been a week since ESPN president John Skipper announced that long-time columnist-and-then-some Bill Simmons (a.k.a. “The Sports Guy”) would not be returning to “The Worldwide Leader” once his contract was up in the fall.

When the news broke, the usual assortment of stories came fast and furious, fitting given Simmons’ love for the movie franchise.

There were several “Where will Simmons end up?” offerings, but the majority of the content that did just report the news of his dismissal straight up fell into the “I wouldn’t be here without him, but…” category, where people lined up to take shots at a guy that helped create the opportunities to opine about sports figure on the Internet that were now being used to point and laugh at his dismissal.

Most of the pieces started with a paragraph of two of praise and then moved to the criticisms, while some didn’t bother with the praise and went right into the snark from Jump Street. Deadspin, a platform that claims to loathe Simmons, had no problem using his name in a dozen or more headlines to capitalize on Google searches while reducing his contributions to ESPN and the way sports are discussed online to “He did alright, but his writing is awful and we hate him because he stinks!” (Note: not a direct quote, but that’s pretty much the gist.)

Somewhere between starting on Page 2 with ESPN and last Friday’s announcement that he’d be unemployed come September, Simmons became the guy that it was cool to hate. He became that Top 40 artist that was massively successful that apparently no one that likes music actually liked, but what separates Simmons from Pitbull is that unlike “Mr. 305,” Simmons actually made some meaningful contributions to the sports landscape that can’t go unrecognized.

Simmons was one of the first guys to make writing about sports on the Internet an acceptable pursuit, so while Deadspin hates him and his writing, they wouldn’t be writing about hating his writing is Simmons hadn’t been as successful as he was in the early Page 2 days at ESPN. Yes, people would have eventually gotten around to writing about sports in a conversational, “talk like a fan” manner without Simmons, but he hastened that transition and was one of the trendsetters in the field, if not the trendsetter. 

Like him or not, give the man his due.

Next we have Grantland, which pops up on web browsers with the subtitle “Sports and Pop Culture from Bill Simmons and our rotating cast of writers.” While Skipper said the site has long since moved on from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own, Simmons was one of the main architects of the site that has exceeded all expectations, at least from a content standpoint.

It may not do great traffic numbers, but the site turns out quality material on the regular. Zach Lowe is one of the best basketball writers in the business. Wesley Morris is a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic. All the pop culture writers are sharp and intelligent. Without Simmons, there is no Grantland. You can’t just glaze over that point. It’s can’t just be a footnote in a column about how much he sucks. Guys that suck don’t help build sites like that.

Which brings us to the 30 for 30 documentary series, which Simmons created with Connor Schell to get a little deeper into 30 different stories from the “ESPN Era” in advance of the company’s 30th anniversary. The first installment did so well that 13 docs that didn’t make the initial cut were eventually released as ESPN Films Presents offerings, and were followed by 30 for 30 Volume II, plus a series of online shorts and Soccer Stories.

They covered a wide range of stories, giving time to subjects that wouldn’t have otherwise been covered and reminded sports fans of some stories and characters that had slipped from memory over the years. They were, for the most part, exceptionally well done and entertaining even if you weren’t completely familiar with the subject matter and like Grantland, the 30 for 30 series wouldn’t have happened without Simmons leading the charge.

Do you have to like Bill Simmons? Of course not.

Do you have to kind of begrudgingly respect the guy for what he’s been able to accomplish over his almost 15 years at ESPN? Yeah, you kind of do, especially if you’re someone that makes a living writing about sports and pop culture on the Internet.

Because as much as you may not like him, he helped make this stuff possible.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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