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Media Mailbag: Would Bill Simmons return to ESPN?

Exploring if Bill Simmons would ever make an ESPN return, plus thoughts on the sports media landscape, NFL commercials and more.

Writing a Mailbag—as egocentric as it is—is a fun exercise. So thanks for tweeting these questions. (Questions have been edited for grammar, clarity and concision.)

You think Bill Simmons will ever be back in the ESPN fold?
• It’s an interesting question because it depends on what your definition of fold is. Simmons owns his own media group, employs dozens of people, enjoys generational wealth and holds final creative power on all his decisions. Like most well-known sports media people who have enjoyed success, he’s competitive and has an ego. I cannot see him returning to ESPN as a contracted employee. He’d see it has a major step backward. Now, the idea of Simmons making one-off appearances on an ESPN property isn’t impossible. Simmons remains very close with certain ESPN-ers, including Kevin Wildes, who runs The Jump and NBA Countdown, on-air talent such as Jalen Rose, some of his former Grantland mates (e.g. Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell), and Erik Rydholm, the most powerful producer connected with ESPN. It would have to be something beneficial to both entities such as podcast home and home arrangement, which has already happened with Simmons and Lowe, or a SportsCentury-like project. Could he do a one-off on PTI because he’s very tight with those hosts and Rydholm? Definitely not impossible in a couple of years.

ESPN announces hiring of Adrian Wojnarowski

Your opinion on NFL having less, but longer commercial blocks during their games next year? Basically just putting makeup on a pig right?

• I actually think it’s a progressive move by Roger Goodell and his posse. As a viewer, I like longer breaks with less frequency of the breaks. I also think you’ll see better games early in the regular season, which will make them seem less of a slog.

What do the cuts at ESPN and Fox for print journalists represent in how we consume sports media?
James Balch

It seems the lion's share of recent sports media cuts have been writers. Do you think prospects are better for video people?
Andrew Goldstein

If you're spending big for PAC 12, Big 12, and B1G, shouldn't keeping Stu Mandel and Bruce Feldman etc… be a minor cost to support that investment.-

Is Fox Sports' emphasis on video a trend that can't be stopped?

Where the heck is this industry headed? Bums like Skip Bayless get huge paydays while sober, reliable reporters like Ed Werder and John Clayton get cut. Then, you have teams, leagues that are snobbish towards websites, podcasts. Who the hell is going to cover their stuff in the end?
Mark Lane

When will the bloodletting of great sports journalists end? It's depressing to log on here everyday and see someone else gone.
Jeff Detra

• So many questions on this topic, understandably. If I could tell you where we are headed, I’d head there. Like everyone else, I worry for my job daily. You will see some of those journalists join league or team sites (as others have) but there’s not enough jobs right now in sports media to match the salaries these journalists had elsewhere, let alone the creative freedom to do such work. Many will get out of the field. In short, the business is truly broken at the moment and it’s particularly frustrating when you invest the resources, money, and time for a story and another site aggregates that reporting and gets far more page views and unique visitors than the place that invested the time and resources. That genie is out of that bottle, though. Most sites do it. I obviously agree with you on Mandel; Feldman will remain doing TV on FS1 and will have a digital announcement soon. I hate seeing anyone lose their job but those who lost gigs at Fox Sports this week feels more personally gutting because most were young, not highly paid, and the message to them is we don’t value investing in you long term. I think one of the only solutions is to own your content, at least in some form, and make it compelling enough where either people will subscribe or you can get it sponsored.

What is your take on NBC’s revised PL programming strategy? I guess the last few years were too good to be true for cable subscribers.
John Thompson‏

How will NBCs decision to charge for PL work out for them? 
Robert Barnard‏

• I know why they are doing it—to recoup dollars from an increased rights deal—but I don’t think it will be popular with fans in the long run. Here are some long pieces on the subject, from Jonathan Tannenwald and Christopher Harris. Also note that the linear ratings for the PL were down last year given the lack of drama for spots in the table.

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What is your take on the Lifetime deal with the NWSL?
Melissa Kenny‏
• I think it’s great. They seem to legitimately care about the league, and the deal gives it both a shot at stability and visibility. I hope it continues.

Has there ever been a more depressing time in the industry? Is this just the bottom of a valley or will it get worse?
Kyle Koster
• We haven’t seen the bottom yet if you are a sports writer, I’m afraid. As the recent Fox Sports layoffs showed, the written word in sports has been devalued at places that can afford to hire people at a significant wage. There’s also the general decline of the health of the newspaper industry. Obviously, some of this is advertising driven given the current lust for short-form video. (I believe much of that lust is cyclical; independent of how hard it is to monetize words.) I have hope, though, that models such as The Athletic are going to continue to merge and succeed. Podcasting is also something to bet on for the future given it’s portable, on demand and an intimate medium. There will always be a demand for sports information and analysis. That will never change.

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You praised Simmons for identifying/elevating young writing talent at Grantland. Has he had same success at Ringer IYO? Who stands out so far?

• The problem with mentioning specific names is that those you don’t mention think it’s a shot on them. I don’t read The Ringer has much as I did Grantland. I do think they’ve done a great job with how they have marketed and created podcasts. The writers Simmons brought over from Grantland remain interesting, unique voices for me. Away from that, Kevin Clark always does great work in the NFL. That was a terrific hire. If I was in charge of SI’s budget, which I am not, I would go after Claire McNear today.

Quantify the value of world-class scoop getter (say Adrian Wojnarowski) to a worldwide leader in sports.
Karlos Elguea‏

• It’s very significant given that ESPN has bet long-term on the NBA (they are paying roughly $2.7B per year for it and they go to market as a place that breaks news and evaluates what that news means. You can build multiple properties around that. For both business and hubristic reasons, executives in Bristol really value owning the crawl, the bottom line that runs on your TV screen and declares who broke the news. They want that crawl to say ESPN broke the news. What’s befuddling is ESPN already has a world class NBA news-breaker in Marc Stein and given the loyalty he showed the company and the quality of his work, how do you not figure out a way to make it work with him heading forward? He has a guaranteed contract with a couple of years remaining, and ESPN will be paying him not to work. I’d want Klay Thompson around even if I brought in Kevin Durant. If he and Wojnarowski don’t get along, figure it out. You are management.  

If Stephen A. Smith had left ESPN instead of Skip Bayless to start the same show in Fox, would ratings for Undisputed have been any better?
Sean McMahon
• Just a total guess, but I believe the ratings would be slightly higher. Why? Smith is louder and more polarizing (thus creating more interest) where Bayless is an aging, oleaginous wrestling heel. To be fair: I don’t think FS1 could create a show in this timeslot that would beat ESPN (not ESPN2) unless they  brought both Bayless and Smith together. (Smith has multiple years left on his deal. Both are repped by the same agent at CAA.) That Fox Sports president, chief operating and executive producer Eric Shanks is satisfied having Skip Bayless as the face of his cable operation is a conversation for another column and should be troubling to any intellectual sports viewer.

You think Brad Nessler will call NCAA Tournament games next year?
—Jeff Pollard
• I do indeed.

With all of the job losses recently, what is a real percentage of permanent job losses, not into freelance but truly GONE?
Michael Yanikoski‏
• In sports media, I’d say 25 -30%.

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Is ESPN uncomfortable with negative social media sentiment and lackluster ratings of SC6?
• I think management and PR had no idea at the level of animus these hosts were going to face (and now face daily) on social media. As for the ratings stories, it’s mixed. Depending on the day, SC6 has beaten the programming in the slot from last year or declined. Here’s the truth: The trend at 6:00 p.m. ET for ESPN on linear television is going one way over the next decade and that is down. It doesn’t matter who is hosting. That time slot isn’t the same destination it was prior to social media. If interested, ESPN author Jim Miller and I had a long discussion on the topic this week on the SI Media Podcast.

What is going on with Katie Nolan and will she be back on TV soon?
—Sam Moody
• Here is what the president of Fox Sports National Networks told The Sporting News in March: “To use the NBA analogy, you can acquire existing superstars from other teams. Or you can build through the draft. That’s what Katie is to us. She’s the superstar that was on our team.”

It’s now July.