SBJ/April 2 - 8, 2007/This Weeks News

ESPN re-signs The Sports Guy, adds TV

While looking to fill its editor-in-chief position and facing increasing competition from rival sports sites, ESPN.com has retained its most popular columnist, Bill Simmons, signing him to a multiyear contract.

Simmons signed a four-year extension through 2010 that will see him continue his popular “Page 2” column on ESPN.com and continue to contribute to ESPN The Magazine.

The most intriguing part of the new deal, however, involves TV, as Simmons will help develop shows for ESPN Original Entertainment.

“He’s always brimming with ideas for TV,” said John Walsh, ESPN’s executive vice president and executive editor. “Projects will pop up from time to time, and Bill will latch on to them.” Those projects will include documentaries, entertainment-oriented shows and programming centered on fantasy sports.

Simmons is interested in developing sports documentaries, calling it “crazy that we’ve conceded sports documentaries to HBO.” He has no plans to work on scripted shows, saying that ESPN has “too much of a conflict of interest because we have a deal with every league.”

ESPN.com is securing its most irreverent columnist at a critical time. Earlier this month, its editor-in-chief John Papanek stepped down, causing ESPN to search for its fourth leader in the past six years.

A month earlier, FoxSports.com registered more unique visitors (15.2 million) than ESPN.com (13.2 million) for the first time, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Much of FoxSports.com’s numbers come from its partnership with MSN.com, which links to FoxSports.com.

Simmons’ edgy and satirical columns are by far the most popular feature on ESPN.com. In the eight weeks since Super Bowl week on Jan. 27, Simmons’ columns have logged more than 16.5 million page views, according to HitBox Web measurement tools. For the first quarter this year, Simmons is seeing a 150 percent increase in visitors from last year.

“He’s an important part of the machinery over there,” said David Katz, former head of Yahoo! Sports. “Bill has an uncanny ability to capture the insights of sports fans and turn those insights into pure entertainment.”

Simmons said he never seriously entertained leaving. “I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “I didn’t shop myself around.”

There were some rumors that SI.com would make a run at Simmons, but Simmons said he would never consider working for that site following the publication of a March 2006 Sports Illustrated article that Simmons felt treated him unfairly.

“I would never work for them,” Simmons said.

The SI piece quoted Simmons opining that he may have been nearing an end of his run at ESPN. Instead, the new contract continues a sort of renaissance for him. Over recent months, his output has increased markedly, something he in part credits to a now-healed back injury that had made it difficult for him to sit.

Under the new deal, Simmons will not be required to write a set amount of columns, though both Simmons and Walsh say he will write more than one column per week.

“Now, I write when I have something to say,” Simmons said.

Simmons said he wants to write a second book, during which time he hinted that he would take a hiatus from writing his column. “It’s impossible to write columns and a book at the same time and do both well,” he said.

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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