HBO announced today that it has signed an “exclusive, multi-year, multi-platform agreement” with longtime ESPN sports commentator Bill Simmons, a deal that includes a weekly series that will premiere next year. In a press release, HBO said that it will be “Simmons’ exclusive television home” and that he’ll work closely with the president of HBO Sports on “non-boxing-related programming.” (That wording might seem bizarre, and it is, but it’s there because boxing is a separate, jealously guarded fiefdom within HBO’s corporate structure.)
Simmons was fired from ESPN earlier this year with a cryptic statement from network president John Skipper, which cited nothing more than a breakdown in “negotiations” as the reason behind firing the Grantland editor-in-chief. In fact, the likely cause was Simmons’ periodic tendency to criticize fellow ESPN talent and the leagues who have lucrative broadcast partnerships with the network. Simmons’ sudden (although not altogether surprising) dismissal came just a day after he criticized Roger Goodell’s handling of the “Deflategate” scandal on a radio show hosted by former ESPN anchor Dan Patrick. Simmons had previously been suspended for anti-NFL remarks, and his invective conflicted with ESPN’s modern role as the baby bird who eagerly gobbles down whatever Roger Goodell chooses to vomit that day.
HBO’s press release doesn’t get into the details of Simmons’ yet-untitled show beyond claiming that it will be “topical and spontaneous,” which can be taken as code for “We’re not going to fire him if he makes cutting remarks about sports people, because that is his job.” The contract also includes a production deal for Simmons “to produce content and assets for the network and its digital platforms, delivering video podcasts and features.” At ESPN, Simmons was a driving force behind the launch of 30 For 30, the network’s acclaimed documentary series on which he served as an executive producer. It’s safe to assume Simmons would like to undertake similar highbrow work at HBO, along with some version of his B.S. Report podcast.
But first, Simmons will have to get a read on the landscape at his new gig, and he has his work cut out for him, because judging by the HBO release, there are enough landscapes around to make Ansel Adams dizzy. “We could not be more thrilled,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo said, “for [Simmons] to bring those talents to HBO and to become a signature voice at the network, spanning the sports and pop culture landscapes.” Simmons returned the favor by observing, “It’s no secret that HBO is the single best place for creative people in the entire media landscape.” And the release further noted that Simmons’ TV program “will feature stories and guests from across the sports and cultural landscapes.”
While HBO and Simmons survey the rolling hills and verdant valleys of their sports media empire, the picture at Grantland, Simmons’ former online home, is murkier. Deadspin reported last week that despite the appointment of a replacement editor-in-chief (Chris Connelly), Grantland staffers have gotten no clear read from ESPN as to whether the site will continue in its current form—communication between network decision-makers and the site’s contributors is practically nil. Meanwhile, The New York Times connects Simmons’ ESPN departure to those of champion bloviator Keith Olbermann and microphone-chewing man-child Colin Cowherd to make the case that ESPN no longer has interest in building a network around “breakout personalities.” The upshot is that ESPN is liable to somehow become even blander in the coming months.