Bill Simmons, who built an internet following in the late ’90s musing on Boston sports and pop culture before becoming a multi-media star at ESPN, will not remain at the network when his contract expires in September.
ESPN president John Skipper issued a statement Friday afternoon confirming a New York Times report that Simmons would be leaving the network after nearly 14 years.
“I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’s contract,’’ said Skipper. “We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on. ESPN’s relationship with Bill has been mutually beneficial — he has produced great content for us for many years and ESPN has provided him many new opportunities to spread his wings. We wish Bill continued success as he plans his next chapter.”
The news of Simmons’s pending departure came as a bombshell not just because of his prominence — he will become perhaps the most coveted free agent in the history of sports media — but because the relationship with ESPN, while occasionally contentious, was one of obvious mutual benefit.
Simmons, who grew up in Marlborough, Brookline, and Stamford, Conn., and graduated from Holy Cross, was noticed by ESPN while he was authoring the BostonSportsGuy.com website, initially at AOL’s long-extinct Digital Cities site.
He joined ESPN in 2001, where he was rebranded as The Sports Guy. Soon Simmons was branching out into podcasts and ESPN programming. His podcast, “The B.S. Report,” averages 2 million downloads a month. He has 3.7 million followers on Twitter.
Simmons came up with the idea for “30 for 30,” an award-winning series of documentaries detailing stories that occurred after ESPN’s inception in 1979.
Simmons founded and serves as the editor-in-chief for Grantland, a popular website owned by ESPN that employs a separate staff of writers. Skipper said the site would remain under ESPN’s domain.
“It long ago went from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own,” Skipper told the Times.
Simmons did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment Friday. The website Deadspin reported he found out about ESPN’s decision on Twitter.
Skipper has long been known as an advocate of Simmons’s work within the ESPN walls. But Simmons has had an increasingly contentious relationship with ESPN management in recent years.
He was suspended for three weeks in September after he criticized NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his handling of the Ray Rice scandal on a podcast.
“Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar,’’ Simmons said. “I’m just saying it. He is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test, that guy would fail.”
During the same podcast, Simmons dared ESPN management to punish him for the comments. They did.
Simmons went after Goodell again on Thursday in an appearance on “The Dan Patrick Show” — a syndicated program ESPN employees are not allowed to appear on without permission — to discuss the controversy regarding the Patriots and underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship game.
“I think it’s pathetic,” said Simmons. “[Goodell] has handled so many things so badly that it’s reached a point now where you have something like this, where it took four months to release the report. He knew everything that was in it. He knows the results before the report is released to the public, and yet, he doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to do anything until he gauges the public reaction.”
James Andrew Miller, who co-authored the ESPN oral history “Those Guys Have All The Fun,” tweeted Friday that the Patrick appearance was “the tipping point” in the breakup between Simmons and ESPN. But Skipper told the Times that the decision to split with Simmons was made three weeks ago.
“This is not personal. It’s business,’’ Skipper told the Times. “I was prepared, if there was an appropriate deal, to do it. Bill’s talent has always been the primary thing for me.”