With Foxcatcher, Unbroken and more engrossing documentaries than ever before, are we living in the Golden Age of sports movies?
This is an article from the Dec. 22, 2014 issue
AMONG CINEMA buffs, 1939 is universally regarded as the greatest year in movie history. During that annus mirabilis, audiences coming out of the Great Depression were treated to an embarrassment of celluloid riches: The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and a little film called Gone with the Wind. But what about that scrappy stepchild genre, the sports movie? What was its 1939? The reality: We just might be living in it. After all, it's entirely conceivable that when this year's Oscar noms are announced, we'll see a Best Picture race featuring a bruise-black drama about a pair of gold-medal wrestlers (Foxcatcher, with its icy air of inevitable tragedy) and an epic about an Olympic runner who crashed his plane in the Pacific during WWII (Unbroken, which is both harrowing and inspiring). Granted, both films are only occasionally about sports. But how much of Brian's Song was about the X's and O's of football?
Consider the historical competition. In my opinion the three best sports movies ever made are Raging Bull, Rocky and Bull Durham. But there's a difference between a great sports movie and a great year of sports movies. When Martin Scorsese's bare-knuckle Jake LaMotta biopic, Raging Bull, came out in 1980, the only other sports film of note that year was Caddyshack. And two titles, no matter how great (or quotable), don't qualify as a year of film. Similarly, when Steve James's Hoop Dreams came out in '94, its only notable sports company at the multiplex was Blue Chips. Tossing a Shaquille O'Neal flick into the mix is the definition of subtraction by addition.
So what were the greatest sports movie years? Well, 1976 is up there. That's when Rocky was joined by Walter Matthau's scabrous, soused Coach Buttermaker in The Bad News Bears and Billy Dee Williams's barnstorming Negro leagues squad in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. And in '79, the year the coming-of-age cycling gem Breaking Away came out, we also got North Dallas Forty, Rocky II and that three-hankie tearjerker, The Champ.
Jumping ahead a decade, what 1989 lacked in quantity, it nearly made up for in sentimentality (Field of Dreams) and smartass debauchery (Major League). For my money, though, the most persuasive arguments to be made are for '96 (When We Were Kings, Jerry Maguire, Tin Cup, Kingpin) and 2004 (Friday Night Lights, Miracle, Dodgeball and the Best Picture--winning Million Dollar Baby).
And yet ... I keep coming back to 2014—a year that provided a slew of films running the gamut from the aforementioned star-driven studio fare to shoestring-budgeted documentaries like Red Army (page 50), about the Soviet Union's cold war hockey juggernaut.
At a time when the studios seem to be interested only in shock-and-awe superhero spectacles and cynical cash-grab sequels, sports movies are often the truest mirror we have, reflecting what's on our minds. They contain metaphors for our obsessions and anxieties, writ large on the silver screen—this year, I'd argue, more than ever.
NASHAWATY'S DON'T-MISS 6
No No On June 12, 1970, Pirates ace Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter while on LSD. This nonfiction retelling of the late eccentric's gonzo triumph achieves a bizarre sort of grace and makes the case for Ellis as a troubled civil-rights maverick.
Happy Valley Director Amir Bar-Lev's doc about the Penn State--Jerry Sandusky scandal goes beyond the lurid headlines and examines the fallout on a once proud community where football is religion.
Ice Warriors Like the 2005 documentary Murderball before it, this rousing story about the U.S. sled hockey team's prep for the '14 Paralympics turns triumph-through-adversity clichés on their heads.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball This delirious doc about the rise and fall of baseball's last outlaws—the Class A Portland Mavericks, a 1970s island of misfit toys armed with Louisville Sluggers—is a groovy reminder that every athlete, deep down, is a naughty kid at heart.
Draft Day Sure, it isn't Bull Durham (or even Tin Cup), but it's always nice to see Kevin Costner in a sports pic. As a frenzied NFL GM whose fate rides on his first-round selections, Costner reminds us why he was once synonymous with the jock-flick genre.
Million Dollar Arm Is this Disney tale—two Indian athletes are brought to America to be molded into major league pitching prospects—shamelessly sentimental? Sure. But so was The Rookie. Just because you know something's schmaltz doesn't mean you can resist it.
Hot in Cleveland
Critics said Draft Day, about the Browns' big day, danced around NFL realities. In fact, it got quite a bit right. Here's how life—spoiler alert—imitated art in 2014.
G.M. Sonny Weaver Jr. has to save the Browns while at odds with the team owner and coach.
QB Brian Drew returns from knee surgery; team eyes his Heisman-winning replacement.
With pick No. 7, Cleveland wheels and deals—first up to No. 1, then to 6, then back to 7 ...
... and instead of selecting the QB everyone expects them to take, they draft on defense: linebacker.
Commissioner Roger Goodell is cheered as he walks onstage to open the draft.
G.M. Ray Farmer has to save the Browns after the previous G.M., coach and CEO are fired.
QB Brian Hoyer returns from knee surgery; team eyes his Heisman-winning replacement.
With pick No. 4, Cleveland wheels and deals—first down to No. 9, then back up to 8 ...
... and instead of the QB everyone expects, they draft on D: cornerback. (They get their QB later.)
Commissioner Roger Goodell is booed as he walks onstage to open the draft.
The year did not begin smoothly for Dave Bautista. His return to pro wrestling in January after a four-year hiatus was roundly rejected by WWE fans, who nicknamed him Bootista. This summer, however, he deservedly felt the hero's embrace, albeit from an unlikely crowd. In July, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis spoke for the masses when she declared Bautista's turn as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014's highest-grossing film) to be "terrific." (Director James Gunn, meanwhile, crowed that the performance made it "hard not to believe in God." Hmmm....) And so, with a nod to worthy candidates—like Icelandic strongman Haf√æór J√∫líus Bj√∂rnsson, who was eye-opening on Game of Thrones—SI awards the belt for Best Athlete-Actor of 2014 to Bautista, who as the Guardians' rigidly literal muscle was an unexpected source of comic relief and emotional gravitas. Bautista has since been cast as the henchman Mr. Hinx in the next Bond movie. While his future in wrestling may be cloudy, on-screen it's as bright as an Infinity Stone.
Q & A with BENNETT MILLER
In 2011's Moneyball, Bennett Miller earned a Best Picture nomination by showing how stats geeks revolutionized baseball. With his follow-up, Foxcatcher, the chilling true-life tale of two Olympic-wrestling brothers who got seduced by one of America's richest men, the director is not only an Oscar front-runner again, but he's also proved to be our foremost chronicler of that fascinating—sometimes tragic—zone where sports and obsession overlap.
How did you first hear about this story?
I wasn't familiar with it when it happened back in 1996. But eight years ago a stranger approached me and gave me an envelope containing newspaper clippings about it.
How very cloak-and-dagger.
I know! And it was interesting on every level—the characters, the bizarreness of it all. What was one of the wealthiest men in America doing with a team of wrestlers on his property, and why did he kill one of them?
I might not call Moneyball or Foxcatcher "sports movies," though they're both set in that world. What is it about sports that makes such a great prism for storytelling?
Exactly what you said: It's a great prism. We're compelled by sports because of the human drama. It speaks to us on a primal and intellectual level.
It took nearly a decade to make this movie. Is it difficult to get a sports movie made?
It depends on the sport and the story. Baseball is difficult because there isn't a large international market. Same with wrestling—it's not exactly a glamour sport.
Tell me about casting Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. They really move like wrestlers.
[Ruffalo] had been a state-champion wrestler, but Dave Schultz was a lefty and had a distinctive style, so in some ways Ruffalo had to start from scratch. These guys spent seven months training with extremely qualified people: Jesse Jantzen, who was an NCAA champion, and John Giura, a former World Team member.
Were you an athlete?
Not exactly. I wasn't the last one picked in school, but I wasn't the first. I didn't make the freshman baseball team. My math teacher was the coach, and as consolation he made me the scorekeeper. I guess that sounds kind of sad.
FROM RUSSIA, WITH GLOVES
On the other side of the Miracle on Ice, it turns out, there was a different tale of heroes (and antiheroes), and that team's story is even more intriguing than the one we know so well. Red Army, a captivating documentary about the dominant Soviet hockey teams of the 1970s and '80s, exposes the Soviet political and cultural factors (largely overlooked Stateside) that created such formidable on-ice talents as Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov and then eventually drove them abroad to the NHL. It's Fetisov—the burly Soviet defenseman and captain of the Red Army team—on whom the film hinges. His clashes with coach Viktor Tikhonov, the political elite and later Western society shed light on the world in which these Soviet players operated. Charismatic and comically irreverent, Fetisov remains a likable lead even when he's flipping the bird to the camera. Now a high-ranking politician in Russia and close friend of Vladimir Putin, he remains relatable because his story is fundamentally one of friendship, loyalty, hardship and courage. Blending Cold War history, politics and sport, director Gabe Polsky spins a fast-paced and engaging picture that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Yes, he's paying homage to the flair and elegance of the old Soviet hockey teams, but he's also peeking into the Soviet system.
F√∫tbol fever in a World Cup year? Hah! Don't tell that to John Oliver and Keith Olbermann. The hosts, respectively, of HBO's Last Week Tonight and ESPN's Olbermann each issued seething soccer screeds this year, Oliver ripping into the dark side of the Cup and Olbermann telling us how to Americanize the sport. Funny as those diatribes were, SI couldn't help imagining the two going head-to-head on the sport. Here, a mash-up of their actual arguments.
KEITH OLBERMANN: I'd like to preface this by saying that I don't care whether soccer succeeds or fails in this country.
JOHN OLIVER: In America, soccer is something you pick your 10-year-old daughter up from, but for everyone else, it's a little more important.
KO: Stop telling me the dominance of soccer is imminent. It's not. Why do you care whether or not anybody else gets it? Your judgment is only valid if you convince me? What are you, in a cult?
JO: When David Beckham got a tattoo of Jesus, the response of most soccer fans was, "Oh, that's huge for Jesus. That's a big deal for him."
KO: Calm down. When was the last time an American said about anything, "It belongs to the world and is not ours to do with as we please"? Soccer is not sacred, it's a game.
JO: Here's my conflict: The World Cup is one of my favorite things, but it's organized by FIFA. You either know it as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or that soccer video game you have.
KO: Stay as far away from FIFA as possible. These human corruption machines make the IOC look like Doctors Without Borders. Stay rogue. Stage your own World Cup here. You want an American soccer tradition? It requires three things: tradition, soccer and American.
JO: Great idea, put the ladies in hot pants, call it "foxy soccer," and while you're at it, tighten up the jerseys, maybe replace the ball with a plate of hot wings and, f--- it, let's just open a Hooters.
KO: You want this sport to succeed in America? God I hate saying something this jingoistic, I'm ashamed to say this, but make it more American.
# Rest In Peace
The humble hashtag connected our online thoughts and turned personal conversations into global dialogue on topics as diverse as #polarvortex, #cat and #Brazil2014. Alas, the hashtag passed away last month. The cause of death: p.r. failure. It was seven years old.
The hashtag endured a long struggle with Twitter. In April, an ESPN radio show asked listeners to submit questions for NCAA president Mark Emmert using #AskEmmert. "Did it hurt when your soul was removed?" came the typical response. Weeks later the NFL put Roger Goodell on the line with #AskCommish. Typical topics: gay rights, sexual abuse and racism. On the heels of an English soccer title, Manchester City implored its supporters to #AskJesus, meaning midfielder Jes√∫s Navas—not the Lord Almighty. Typical query: "Why [can] you walk on water but dive on grass?" The end was nigh. One tweeter replied to the Mets' #IamAMetsFanBecause campaign with "I'm an idiot." Finally, in November, the Cowboys cut out the middleman. Why leave it up to the Internet to insult your team? they seemed to be asking their British supporters when they declared that #Cowboys UK.
The # is survived by @, :) and the selfie.
Q & A with LIEV SCHREIBER
Narrator, pretty much everything
Liev Schreiber is best known for his acting work—on Showtime's Ray Donovan, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, doing Shakespeare on stage. But sports fans are just as likely to know him as the smooth, stentorian narrator of some of (hell, most of) this decade's best sports documentaries—Magic & Bird, McEnroe/Borg, and HBO's Hard Knocks and 24/7 franchises. SI spoke to the actor about his side gig.
By our count, you've now voiced almost 50 of these things. Were you surprised that you proved such a natural?
I'd always been a big fan of John Facenda, the old voice of NFL Films. He's my idol. He gave football the feel of Greek mythology. He sounded like ... not God, but a god. Like Thor or something. His voice and those films were big for a 10-year-old. To me, it had more to do with poetry than sports.
What have you liked most about narrating?
If some of the other aspects of being a celebrity and being in movies are kind of unpleasant to you, this is the greatest gig on earth. The anonymity is really nice. No one bothers you, you're not being scrutinized. And the booth is so private and quiet, kind of warm and cozy. It's a nice place.
Is it hard to balance with your day job?
I'm fortunate enough to work with people who've been willing to work around my schedule. I was in Morocco on vacation with my family and I had to record an episode of 24/7. We found a studio in the middle of nowhere and put carpets over the windows to mute the sound. You can do this anywhere.
Do you have a favorite athlete's name to pronounce?
Manny Pacquiao is up there. But being a huge fan of his, I got that one down a long time ago.
There are a lot of consonant-heavy Russian names in the NHL 24/7 series. Do those trip you up?
I'm pretty good with [those] because I'm of Russian descent, but every once in a while I need some help.
Finally, how do you prime your pipes before recording? Any rituals?
There was a solid 10-year patch of cigarettes and whiskey that I think might have helped me a little bit. Nowadays, a little warm tea or water will get you going.
Some people remember sporting seasons by their heroes. Others (no judging here) remember them by the commercials, aired again and again until they burrowed into our brains.
Beats by Dre
"Hear What You Want"
"Throw Like a Girl"
NFL REGULAR SEASON
NBA REGULAR SEASON
SORRY YOU ASKED
Awful Announcing's Matt Yoder reviews the year in interviews
BEST Q/WORST A
Norah O'Donnell (CBS) to Roger Goodell, about the Ray Rice case: How is it that the NFL couldn't get its hands on the second tape but TMZ could? Goodell, in a nutshell: Um....
WORST Q/BEST A
Erin Andrews (Fox) asked the Giants' Hunter Pence about his World Series pregame speech. Pence corrected Andrews—he wasn't the orator—and even apologized for the awkwardness.
BIGGEST INTERVIEW FAIL
While doing a radio interview from his car, former pro golfer Mark Allen informed listeners, "Oh, I've just crashed." Kids, don't do interviews and drive.
During an interview with Lisa Salters (ESPN), Clippers guard Jamal Crawford named all 17 NBA coaches he's played for, in order, without a pause. (Even Isiah Thomas!)
After scoring 20 points in the NBA Finals, the Spurs' Kawhi Leonard got all philosophical with Stuart Scott (ESPN). Scott: Who are you, man? Leonard: Kawhi Leonard.
LEAST INFORMATIVE MOMENT
In gifting a Chevy Colorado to World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, Chevy regional manager Rikk Wilde said the new truck has "you know, technology and stuff."
THE GRADE DICTATOR
Richard Deitsch, the voice behind SI.com's Media Circus column, evaluates the sports media's handling of the year's biggest stories
For too long, main-streamers treated the Clippers' owner like an unwanted dinner guest, not a man with a history of offensive remarks and execrable business practices. Once his racist nonsense surfaced, thanks to TMZ, plenty of smart coverage followed. B+
Too many reporters carried the NFL's water on its lenient initial two-game suspension of the Ravens' running back. And an even longer list of outlets failed to shine a light on the NFL's unconscionably lax history in handling domestic violence cases. C+
ESPN's obsession reached Tebow-ian depths: Deadspin reported that the net referred to Manziel 113 times in Round 1 of the draft. (That's more than the Top 5 picks, combined.) As he rises in Cleveland, Manziel continues to drive ESPN narratives—and it's not much better elsewhere. D
Right through ESPN's tactful handling of Sam's reaction after he was drafted by the Rams, reporting on the NFL's first openly gay player was well done. The missteps were few—see the SportsCenter report on his showering habits—and the coverage generally smart. B+
Imagine Tim Tebow in the Canadian Football League. (Easy enough.) Now imagine an alternate-universe CFL in which stadiums can open their walls as play extends beyond the end zone under "bound for street" rules. (O.K., harder.) There you have the basic premise for Jon Bois's brilliant, completely absurd, 44,000-word Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles, published online in six chapters by SB Nation in August. Told from the perspective of a nostalgic Tebow, 19 years in the future of a fictional world, the story follows the quarterback's journey from culture-shocked American import (in this version of Canada, athletic shoes are sponsored by movies, such as the Will Smith comedy Hitch) to the leader of an epic football drive that spans 12 years and three million yards, including rooftop passes and a parliamentary possession dispute. Along this increasingly odd, well, odyssey—it's augmented online by crude artwork and video—Tebow finally discovers the home for his unique talents. Alas, this comes just as the sport he loves dissolves into existential crisis. Bois is a writer well-versed in twisting familiar sports figures into bizarre narratives (google the inspired "Breaking Madden" series), but this is his magnum opus. And much like Tebow himself, we might never see anything like it again.
5 THINGS YOU'LL LEARN ABOUT THE CFL FROM JON BOIS*
• Canadian footballs feature five-foot retractable tails and can be altered to weigh as much as 12 pounds.
• Female players are common enough that their presence is unremarkable.
• There are no coaches.
• When play moves outside a stadium, a third team can seek possession of the ball.
• Retired players are eligible receivers for their former teams.
*None of this is true, of course
Thrown, Kerry Howley's (mostly) nonfiction account of her three years as a spacetaker, or MMA groupie, is a fascinating take on violence-as-poetry. If you fit into any of the above categories (or even if you don't), it's a gratifying read. If you fit all of them? Well, she wrote it for you personally.
Jay Z fans
THOSE WHO CAN'T, WATCH
For anyone who's sat by as a friend hogged an Xbox controller, the spectating prospects of the video game industry can appear dubious. But try telling that to Amazon, which in August paid $970 million to acquire Twitch, a streaming video service that allows users to both broadcast their gameplay and watch the feeds of others. Spun off in 2011 from Justin.tv, a poor man's YouTube, Twitch has become a juggernaut: The site now boasts more than 50 million regular viewers and accounts for approximately 40% of all live-streaming traffic in the U.S. That success stems from Twitch's nurturing of devoted communities around massively popular games like League of Legends, and from the development of fan bases around streamer stars like CaptainSparklez, with his 815,000 followers. Given the rising popularity and acceptance of e-sports—the LoL World Championships at the Staples Center in L.A. sold out in one hour last year (take that, Lakers), and the U.S. government now grants athlete visas to gamers—further growth seems inevitable. Many, many eyes will be watching.
Hits & Misses
We Want More
Tara Lipinski & Johnny Weir / Colorfully honest (and colorfully dressed) commentators were the stars of the Sochi Olympics.
Second-career hard-liners / Execs turned analysts Louis Riddick and Amy Trask are two of the brightest NFL minds on TV.
Jay Bilas / No broadcaster battles NCAA hypocrisy with more savvy and smarts than ESPN's college hoops guru.
Rebecca Lowe / Sensational as host of NBC's Premier League coverage; extended that as a rookie Olympic anchor.
Ray Hudson / Paraphrasing Hudson (on Lionel Messi), the beIN Sport announcer is "pure football magic that belongs in a different galaxy."
Lou Holtz & Mark May / College football commentators' faux-fighting stopped being funny around the time of moon landing.
First Take blowhards / Stephen A. Smith still traffics in tripe. The nadir: suggesting some women provoke domestic violence.
Mike Ditka / Da Coach was once a charismatic old-school figure. Today his takes are far more predictable, less interesting.
Twitter suspensions / Putting an adult in a social media time out (see: ESPN, Bill Simmons) feels toothless—and very junior high.
Harold Reynolds / Fox's lead baseball game analyst is a pom-pom waver; he would be better serving as Derek Jeter's PR man.
Invasion of the Pod People
THIS ITEM might as well be brought to you by MailChimp. If you got that joke, you've helped prove the coming point. Podcasts aren't new. In fact, they're named after a piece of electronica—the classic iPod, of course—that's no longer manufactured. But the podcast made a stirring comeback in 2014. While a quick scan of the iTunes Store offers analytic support of this surging popularity, the more compelling evidence may be anecdotal. On your next trip to the gym, notice the vast contingent of audiophiles, earbuds firmly implanted; then notice how seldom you hear music dripping out. Odds are good that these folks are listening to talking: interviews and conversation and debate; even a serial.
This audio format is ideal for our binge-watching, I-want-it-now media consumption. It's also ideal for sports. Yes, there's a talk radio element to the typical sports podcast. But they're more nuanced, more niche, and unencumbered by fanboy callers (and unending commercials). Bill Simmons's B.S. Report reigns as the most popular sports pod, but he's in good company. Men in Blazers' Roger Bennett and Michael Davies alchemized their excellent soccer pod into a TV show. With partner Bill Reiter, Andy Roddick has mastered the medium. A personal favorite: Slate's witty, whimsical Hang Up and Listen.
When podcasts sing, they recall eavesdropping on an engrossing barroom conversation. When they don't ... well, here's another virtue: You can jack up the speed to 1.5 and consume an hour in 40 minutes—or quit and listen to a better one.
—L. Jon Wertheim
The biggest sports media mystery of the year? That's easy; it comes from the wildly popular (and decidedly nonsportscentric) true-crime podcast, Serial: Was Adnan Syed actually at track practice on Jan. 13, 1999?
THE BITTER WITH THE TWEET
What we learned from Twitter in 2014
Penn State is big on punctuality.
Life is tough with a web-savvy coach; after tackle Chance Sorrell tweeted he was cutting it close getting to class, coach James Franklin fired back:
And u better be on time
Jim Tressel is a Makaveli disciple.
The former Ohio State football coach draws inspiration from an unlikely source.
For every dark night, there's a brighter day —Tupac Shakur #QuietTime
Derek Jeter fears felines.
In a Q&A with fans, the longtime Yankees captain dropped a stunner.
I'm scared of cats—DJ
Tweeting at your favorite pitcher has its benefits.
A Royals fan looked to K.C. reliever Brandon Finnegan for free tickets—and it worked.
Tuesday in kc?
Tweeting at your celebrity crush does not.
Sixers center Joel Embiid hollered at Kim Kardashian, and then Rihanna. Still no response.
Hey baby holla at me!! Dinner at giorgios at 930pm
Grammar is important.
After one tweeter told Evan Mathis, "your my hero," the Eagles' guard gave his fans a good schooling.
A young Evan Mathis would never misuse your for you're.
Justin Timberlake is not to be trolled.
Accused of jumping on the Grizzlies' bandwagon, the pop star served up a history lesson.
Uh ... I'm from Memphis and I'm an owner. Anyone else? #WigSnatch
Feed the Beast
truTV UConn Teamcast
TNT Florida Teamcast
CNN Anderson Cooper-cast
Complaining about announcers is an integral part of the fan experience, an inevitable by-product of a diverse group of enthusiasts watching one standardized show. But if several innovative 2014 experiments are any indication, we'll increasingly be able to opt into specialized broadcasts and pick the personalities, angles and topics that most appeal to us.
In January, ESPN's BCS championship "megacast" approached the game in six different ways (one featured commentary from rival coaches, for example) across six TV and digital options. "We're always contemplating, What's the best way to counterprogram huge events?" says Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior VP of media acquisitions. "We took a counterintuitive approach: Don't [air] something completely different on our other networks—put on more of the same." In March, TBS similarly supplemented its Final Four with regionalized "teamcasts" on TrueTV and TNT that featured team-specific announcers. And in October, while Fox aired Game 1 of the NLCS, Fox Sports 1 premiered a simulcast that stressed advanced stats, using talent from its Just a Bit Outside (JABO) website.
Ratings for such broadcasts are largely beside the point. "The lion's share of the audience will always be watching the traditional production," says Magnus. "But compared to whatever else we might have [aired]? It was better than that."
In the end, Fox execs were pleased too. Their simulcast grew JABO's online readership and spoke to a new, geekier audience. "The primary broadcast is designed to serve as many people as possible," says Pete Vlastelica, Fox's EVP of digital. But "with this [second broadcast], we could narrowly target one particular segment."
ESPN plans to try something similar again. Fox, too, will likely go back to the well, says Vlastelica, both with JABO and other properties. The idea, he says: "Bring in a group of analysts who are fundamentally different from the primary analysts, and who are very smart and appeal to a growing segment of the audience."
Off the field, at least, everyone wins.
ESP with ESPN
Bill Simmons is about to upturn the sports media world. Or not
BILL SIMMONS first became a pro wrestling fan when he was 12, and he has since infused his writing and podcasting for ESPN with references to WWE and its panoply of characters. As a youngster, Simmons gravitated to Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka, who leaped from the top rope like a muscle-bound Nureyev. Then he migrated to Hulk Hogan, the ultimate babyface for Generation X. Later, he claimed as a favorite the flamboyant Randy Savage.
This fascination with wrestling carried into adulthood, and a number of performers have appeared on Simmons's podcast, The B.S. Report, including a modern favorite, CM Punk, whose in-ring character projected iconoclasm above all. In a 2011 column proclaiming Punk to be wrestling's Next Big Thing, Simmons wrote that Punk had "transformed himself into the People's Champ, a carefree renegade who aired real-life gripes with [WWE] in his 'fake' interviews." Then, last January, Punk left WWE, citing, in part, a severe lack of communication with management. (He's now a UFC fighter.)
You don't need to be Javert to see the parallels between Simmons and the former WWE star. Simmons has had a rocky relationship with ESPN management of late, starting with a three-week suspension in September for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a "liar." ESPN said it suspended Simmons because he overstepped the line between commentary and reporting. Unofficially, they suspended him because he publicly challenged management to do so. Simmons found himself in another minidrama last month when he unleashed a series of disparaging tweets about ESPN Radio host Mike Golic, who'd accused him of trafficking in Skip Bayless hot-takery. (He hadn't.) Hours later, Simmons Instagrammed a photo of himself and Punk at an L.A. Kings game. It was a minor bit of happenstance and a major bit of messaging to management.
Given his popularity, Simmons's suspension became a cause c√®lébre: The hashtag #freesimmons trended on Twitter, and plenty of boldfaced names (Judd Apatow, Malcolm Gladwell) accused ESPN of being corporate toadies for Goodell's NFL. Those close to Simmons will tell you he remains angry about the suspension but that it likely pushed him to reexamine what he wants professionally as he approaches his 46th birthday next September.
Which brings us to 2015. One of the most popular parlor games among sports media watchers today involves guessing what Simmons will do when his contract expires late next year. He's been at ESPN since 2001 and has his hands in multimedia content across the company—columns on Grantland, where he's editor-in-chief; a popular podcast; an NBA show with Jalen Rose; and then there's 30 for 30, ESPN's highly praised documentary division, where he's a producer. So, how much is he worth to the company?
"There are several revenue streams at ESPN that have the Simmons name attached to them," says James Andrew Miller, co-author of These Guys Have All the Fun, an oral history of the network. "At Grantland he is clearly the driver of those dollars. For ESPN.com and NBA coverage, he is part of a larger team, so values are harder to determine. That said, Simmons is one of the highest-paid employees at ESPN, and they aren't losing money on him."
Let's pretend that, like Punk, Simmons is ready to leave his WWE. Where might he land? Despite working for the most corporate brand in sports media, Simmons still sees himself as an outsider, and there would be great personal appeal for him in trying to swipe ESPN's audience. It's been surmised that Simmons's best model might be following Glenn Beck, the former Fox News commentator who established his own online (and largely subscription-based) media network. If Simmons followed suit, a host of Grantland staffers would almost certainly join him. (Worth noting: ESPN owns the Grantland site—and its name.)
New media companies such as Bleacher Report (which has access to NBA content through Turner Sports) and Vox Media (which built a news site around former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein) could be intriguing options. Surely, some old-school media conglomerates such as Fox, NBC or Time Inc., which owns SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, or digital players like Yahoo! will reach out (if they haven't already).
Or Simmons could stay put. No entity affords him more resources and distribution than ESPN, which holds a long-term contract with his beloved NBA. So, where does he stand? Well, he's not talking. (Very un-Punk-like, Bill.) He issued a statement to SI—"I can't control what people are writing and saying about my future; all I know is that I haven't said squat"—but he declined an interview.