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ESPN president John Skipper talks Simmons, EPL & more at Upfronts

ESPN president John Skipper spent much of his time at ESPN Upfronts answering questions about Bill Simmons and Grantland.

NEW YORK — In a crowded hallway outside of a glitzy midtown Manhattan theater that earlier featured Jordin Sparks, Darrelle Revis and a handful of ESPN on-air talent presenting the brand’s 2015-16 plans to the advertising community, ESPN president John Skipper spent much of his time talking about a staffer who was 3,000 miles away from the Minskoff Theatre:

Bill Simmons.

On Friday, Skipper announced that ESPN would not re-sign Simmons, the editor-in-chief of Grantland and an executive producer of the 30 for 30 franchise, when his contract expires in September. That preemptive public strike by ESPN caused an uproar in social media and launched a series of stories, from Fox News to Bloomberg to Vanity Fair the Daily Mail of London.

“The decision I made earlier this week was business, which should not detract the appreciation I have for Bill Simmons for what he did at ESPN,” Skipper said to about a dozen reporters and eight or so ESPN p.r. people. “He was at ESPN for 15 years and did a fabulous job for us. He reinvented at one point the way you do sportswriting and was the most-read sports writer in the history of the medium. He brought us Grantland and did an unbelievable job ... He was a terrific editor and a discoverer and nurturer of talent. He was a key contributor and founder of 30 for 30. I appreciate what Bill has done for us.”

One of the biggest issues at hand now is whether Simmons will appear again on ESPN’s airwaves or platforms prior to the official end of his contract. Skipper offered no clear resolution.

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“We’re going to work through where we are, and I don’t have any comment on what we might do,” Skipper said. “It’s going to be better for us to talk to each other and not go to the press. Anything we are talking about is personal and confidential and I expect you’ll hear from Bill and I in the not so distant future about what we are up to. Right now all is cordial.”

Skipper did address some topics related to Simmons and Grantland’s future, as well EPL rights; the 2016 Wild Card Game being simulcast on ABC; his interest in re-signing Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd; and his faith in The Undefeated, ESPN’s upcoming site on race, sports and culture.

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On Grantland’s future: “We are committed to Grantland. We are going to continue to do it and we are going to continue to do it at the same level both financially and staff-wise. Bill did a great job building that site, and I think he and I will be on the same page in suggesting we want to build on that legacy.” Asked specifically by if he had a long-term commitment to Grantland, Skipper said yes.

On whether the deal with Simmons broke over money. “It did not come down to money. Look, we're a big company. If it was just dollars and cents, we would have figured something out. "It is about ultimately about what he wants to do, what value that creates, what we want to do together in deciding whether there is going to be a match, and we decided that ultimately there wouldn't be."

On why Simmons has been quiet since his departure: “I can’t speak exactly why. I think Bill is thinking smartly about what he will do next, and I hope it is the desire of all parties not to have a public fracas.” As Richard Sandomir of the New York Times reported Tuesday, talent contracts like Simmons’s typically contain nondisparagement clauses, and the cost is often a lot cash if broken.

On an exodus of Grantland staff leaving with Simmons: “No.”

On pursuing English Premier League rights when they are available: “We have not started any discussion. The league has not started the process. I think but I don’t know definitely but I think it will be this summer.”

On his level of interest for retaining Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless, whose contracts are coming up: “Very high.”

On whether Disney head Bob Iger or the company’s Board of Directors weighed in on Simmons: "I want to be definitive about that. This was my decision. Bob and Bill have been friends, and Bob is an admirer of what Bill does. And I don't do anything like this without telling Mr. Iger. But he's put it long ago on me that I will make decisions like that.”

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On whether Skipper spoke to Simmons before he announced his decision to the New York Times: “The narrative that you read is accurate.” (The Times reported Skipper did not call Simmons before going public.)

On building digital personalities in the future: “Look, we got fabulous work out of Bill Simmons and if any of you know another Bill Simmons, please let me know. Like a general manager I would like to find him as a rookie and get him in the rookie cap. We will continue to look for outsized talent.”

On The Undefeated: “My confidence that we will do a great site is very high.”

On why there is so much interest in the Simmons story: “Every now and then I am reminded of how much attention these kind of things get. Yes, I am always a little surprised. You think you are in a bubble to some extent. When we put on an NBA playoff game, we know that the world is watching. Sometimes this stuff feels inside but Bill broke through. He has what, 3.7 million Twitter followers? He’s the most widely read columnist/analyst of the last 15 years. So it’s big.”

Other announcements from the ESPN upfronts:

• Scott Van Pelt will become the solo anchor for SportsCenter’s weekday, midnight (ET) edition, a role that will start in late summer. In conjunction with that move, he will leave ESPN Radio’s SVP & Russillo show. “It was going to take something remarkable for me to consider a day that didn't include radio, and this would qualify,” Van Pelt said in a statement. “Like a lot of people, I remember fondly the ‘good old days’ of SportsCenter. The world of 2015 makes that show an impossibility now. Can we make this hour something people remember fondly some day? I believe we can and hope we will.”

Van Pelt will continue to host golf events as part of a new multi-year deal. His radio partner, Ryen Russillo, has a contract that ends this year, and will weigh options inside and outside ESPN for his next move.

• ESPN’s 2016 NFL Wild Card games will be simulcast on ABC, a move that will result in larger viewership (and thus ESPN can sell it for higher rates). The game will be ABC’s first NFL game in 10 years (since Super Bowl XL). ESPN’s Monday Night Football team of Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and sideline reporter Lisa Salters will call the game, and the production staffers will all come from ESPN. “Our goal is for us to get more audience, and you’ll see us becoming more opportunistic with ABC,” Skipper said. “It does not portend some dramatic shift in our emphasis. ESPN is our sports brand. But we are competitive guys. We want to have the highest-rated playoff games.”

• ESPN announced Volume Three of 30 for 30, which will include 30 new documentaries. Among the topics: the Tyson-Holyfield fight, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, Baltimore's Dunbar High School basketball team, John Daly, and Buffalo Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowl losses. The working title for the upcoming Bills doc is Four Falls of Buffalo.

• SportsCenter will add a two-hour block of live programming starting in February. SportsCenter AM will air 7-9 a.m. ET. As part of a larger Disney initiative to cross-platform properties, SportsCenter AM will share talent resources with ABC’s Good Morning America and ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike.

The Noise Report


1. Allen Iverson was a generational basketball talent, a small man (in basketball circles) with a big heart who made it impossible to look away for him. Thus, he makes a perfect subject for a documentary.

After debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014, Iverson, a 97-mintute documentary directed by Zatella Beatty and produced by Ted Faye and Stephen P. Perry, will debut on Showtime this Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. Here’s a trailer, and here’s a review from William Rhoden of the New York Times.

Mike Tollin, director of Radio and Peabody Award-winning documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream and producer of Varsity Blues and Coach Carter (among other projects), is an executive producer on the film, and was instrumental in getting it to Showtime. Said Tollin: “I think they [Showtime] liked the idea of Allen as a cultural force; he was not just a Hall of Fame player and a force on the court but someone influential and who impacted the sport off the court as well through fashion and rap. It’s a broad portrait of an athlete.”

2. Something to keep an eye on: Tollin is the executive producer of Sin City Saints, a scripted series about a fictional pro basketball franchise based in Las Vegas. The notable thing here is that the show—eight half-hour episodes—was commissioned by Yahoo! and is available at Yahoo! Screen. The show’s plotlines echo the narrative of a professional sports team. “I give Yahoo! a lot of credit for giving us the creative autonomy, and I think people will find it a pleasant surprise,” Tollin said.

3. Here’s the Hollywood Reporter’s Marissa Guthrie on today’s ESPN Upfronts and speaking with Skipper.