At SXSW, Grantland’s Bill Simmons Sounds Off About Relationship With ESPN

The 2010 New Yorker Festival: In Conversation With Malcolm Gladwell
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Bill Simmons‘ relationship with the higher ups at ESPN has always been somewhat contentious, and during an interview with Re/code at SXSW in Austin yesterday, he took the opportunity to sound off on a variety of topics, including his perception that ESPN hasn’t put in the effort to monetize his popular Grantland podcasts and/or adequately fund the site’s projects, among several other things.

“Yes. Is that my fault? I don’t know. I think other people have had a lot of success monetizing it. I think for what ESPN does as a company — it’s a company that’s built toward selling bigger things. They have deals with a lot of sponsors, and their money is going to gravitate toward bigger properties that ESPN has.

The challenge for ESPN and a lot of other companies is trying to figure out how to keep those relationships, and also figuring out how to extend relationships, or create relationships with stuff that’s not Monday Night Football.”

The conversation inevitably veered toward the fact that Grantland has practically cornered the market for multimedia sports and pop culture websites, for which Simmons harbors no small amount of modesty.

“It’s weird that nobody gives us credit for this. I think we have the best multimedia site right now. I don’t even know who we’re competing with. I don’t mean to be conceited — we just do the most things.”

Simmons, recall, was suspended by ESPN for three weeks last fall following comments he made about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s bungling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse fiasco. His latest contract with the network, which he signed in 2010 at the launch of the Grantland website, will be up soon, and Simmons was more than a little cagey about whether he plans to re-up.

“I just think Grantland’s at a crucial point now where we’re doing the site that we have now really, really well. And that’s been the case now for about 14 months. So now the question is, what does that mean to ESPN? I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s a me decision — it’s what does ESPN want from this site? Because if they just want it to say [sic] the same, it’s going to stagnate a little bit.”

Admittedly, Simmons deserves tremendous credit for the exponential growth at Grantland, which has spawned the popular 30 for 30 documentary series, The Grantland Basketball Hour, not to mention a slew of popular sports and pop culture podcasts.

Still, the Simmons persona can be grating at times, whether he’s being an unabashed homer for the Celtics, making self-referential remarks about his own work, indulging in endless and often wholly unnecessary pop culture references and analogies, or just generally acting like a know-it-all. Sports journalists like ourselves have a complicated relationship with the man whose voice and style has helped transform the dialogue around sports, mostly for the better.

But for anyone who slogged through his 700-page Book of Basketball — again, a remarkable achievement on his part — you probably decided, like we did, that you didn’t need to read anything else by him for a while. And that’s where his real genius comes in. At Grantland, he’s been extraordinarily savvy about surrounding himself with other supremely talented writers, such as Zach Lowe (easily one of the smartest basketball minds writing today), Andy Greenwald (arguably the best television critic around), and countless others.