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Following HBO Deal, Bill Simmons Adds New Site, The Ringer, to Post-ESPN Plans

Following HBO Deal, Bill Simmons Adds New Site, The Ringer, to Post-ESPN Plans

Beginning as an email newsletter in March, with the website to follow in late spring or early summer, The Ringer will be the “exclusive home to all of Simmons’ written material,” his spokesman said. The staff will be stocked with Grantland alums, including The Ringer’s first editor in chief, Sean Fennessey, and the new site will, à la Grantland, cover both sports and culture. (One measure of Simmons’ influence? MTV News has already snapped up several of his most popular former writers, including Brian Phillips and Molly Lambert, for its beefed up digital presence — which will also feature LA Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson.) The Ringer is part of Simmons’ new shingle, the Bill Simmons Media Group.

The move signals Simmons’ desire to reassert his independence after a trying (though immensely lucrative) period at ESPN, during which he regularly bristled under the network’s interference. Along with his exclusive agreement with HBO (see below), which sealed a four-year pact with former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart in November, The Ringer secures a space for Simmons’ distinctive perspective without running into the same corporate red tape that plagued him in his latter years at ESPN — which, with the booming market for live sports in the age of time-shifting and cord-cutting, made its money elsewhere, anyway.

HBO, by contrast, is likely to give Simmons a lot of running room. In tandem with its relationships with Vice Media and Stewart, the premium channel’s partnership with Simmons seems designed to lure in young, diverse, digital-native viewers attracted by his freewheeling, no-bullshit style. HBO won’t want to mess with the columnist’s secret sauce.     

READ MORE: “ESPN Nixes Grantland as the Post-Simmons Era Continues” 

EARLIER: HBO and Bill Simmons have struck a multi-platform exclusive agreement which includes a new HBO weekly talk show series to debut in 2016. The sports media influencer and founding editor of sports media giant ESPN’s four-year-old Grantland.com left his beloved website — where he had launched an online interview show — in May 2015, just five months before ESPN shuttered it altogether. He will invite guests from across the sports and cultural landscapes for the new HBO series, which will also be available on HBO GO and HBO NOWSM. 

New Englander-turned-Angeleno Simmons’ diverse resume includes earning a Master’s of Arts in Print Journalism from Boston University, sports columnist, TV host and analyst, doc producer, podcaster, and author (“Now I Can Die in Peace: How the Sports Guy Found Salvation Thanks to the World Champion (Twice!) Boston Red Sox” and “The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy,” which was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list). Simmons began writing for ESPN.com in 2001, and starting in 2002, was the lead columnist for ESPN The Magazine for seven years. He also served as a writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC from 2002 to 2004.
“We have been fans of Bill Simmons and his work for a very long time,” stated Michael Lombardo, HBO’s President, Programming. “His intelligence, talent and insights are without precedent in the areas he covers. We could not be more thrilled for him to bring those talents to HBO and to become a signature voice at the network, spanning the sports and pop culture landscapes.”
The overall agreement brings a comprehensive partnership between Simmons and HBO on a many platforms. Simmons will also produce content and assets for the network and its digital platforms, delivering video podcasts and features.

Clearly social media will be an asset for Simmons, who has wide appeal, especially to the male demographic. So it makes sense that Simmons will be consulting with HBO Sports, “working closely with HBO Sports president Ken Hershman on non-boxing-related programming, including the development of shows and documentary films for the network,” per the HBO press release.

Simmons’ meteoric rise to prominence during his 14 years at ESPN brought the network into the world of Hollywood culture and indie filmmaking. The irreverent columnist, who also co-created the network’s acclaimed documentary series, “30 for 30,” ended his relationship with the network when his contract expired. According to one report he was seeking $6 million a year during his negotiations before the network balked. “I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’ contract. We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on,” ESPN president John Skipper said in a statement at the time. 
There were plenty of places for Simmons to go. Vice co-founder and CEO Shane Smith tweeted a job offer, while Sports on Earth senior writer Will Leitch argued that Simmons’ best options were to strike out on his own again or partner with Bleacher Report, which has an established relationship with the NBA and Turner Broadcasting. 
Simmons’ influence, by way of his “B.S. Report” podcast (which debuted in 2007 and featured such guests as President Barack Obama, Jimmy Kimmel, Chris Rock and Lena Dunham, the #1 sports podcast on iTunes last year with more than four million downloads per month), “30 for 30,” and Grantland, had always been marginal in terms of ESPN’s profit model. “Monday Night Football” creates revenue. Simmons created prestige.
“30 for 30,” for instance, which Simmons co-created with Connor Schell in 2009 to commemorate the network’s 30th anniversary, has since produced more than 100 episodes across multiple franchises, including “30 for 30 Shorts,” “30 for 30: Soccer Stories,” “ESPN Films Presents,” and the women-centered “Nine for IX.” Rather than replicate the flat style and greatest-hits nostalgia of the old “Sportscentury,” “30 for 30” features fresh angles on important sports stories that reach well beyond the playing field.

Indie filmmakers, including Albert Maysles, John Singleton, Daniel Gordon, and others, have produced innovative, stylish portraits of everything from the day of O.J. Simpson’s infamous car chase (Brett Morgen, “June 17, 1994”) and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan (Nanette Burstein, “The Price of Gold”) to Venus Williams’ quest for gender pay equality in tennis (Ava DuVernay, “Venus Vs.”) and the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 (Ryan Fleck, “The Day the Series Stopped”). Under Simmons’ influence, ESPN has become one of television’s leaders in nonfiction filmmaking, behind only HBO and PBS. This did not go unnoticed by HBO.
Similarly, Grantland, through its “Hollywood Prospectus” vertical, had become a major player in entertainment journalism and film and television criticism, attracting must-read writers like Pulitzer Prize-winner Wesley Morris, Andy Greenwald, and ex-EW editor Mark Harris. That’s not to say Simmons was perfect. As his stature and power at ESPN grew, he lost the regular-Joe charm of his “Sports Guy” persona under a layer of self-aggrandizing smarm. He’s been accused of cozying up a little too close to the celebrities and star athletes he covers, and his regular public spats with the network — most recently in 2014, when he was suspended for three weeks after calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell “a liar” on his podcast — pointed to the fact that he wasn’t on quite so long a leash as he sometimes suggested.
Nevertheless, Simmons retained an ardent, no-bullshit willingness to defy the network’s obeisance to the business of sports and entertainment when required. His unvarnished perspective seeped into the ESPN properties he worked with most closely, such that Grantland and “30 for 30” cut against the grain of dominant studio franchise films and sterile sports commentary alike. Simmons’ role in turning ESPN’s eye toward the prestige of respected writers and award-winning original programming, though it may have stemmed from a distinctive editorial vision, was ultimately possible because he brought his audience with him. Simmons leveraged the immense popularity he’d achieved since coming to ESPN from AOL in 2001 to break the mold of highlight reels and talking heads, and he could reasonably assure the network that its risks were minimal because his fans were sure to follow. 

HBO is banking that this will happen again.

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