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Bill Simmons Looks Back on Where ESPN Went Wrong

Variety logo Variety 5/31/2017 Andrew Wallenstein
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Years after his controversial exit from ESPN, sports journalist Bill Simmons still hasn’t finished publicly dissecting the struggles his former employer is currently facing.

Announcing his new advertising deal Wednesday for website The Ringer with Vox Media, which operates the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., he pointed the finger at the cable network moving slow to embrace change.

“They didn’t see a lot of this coming, they didn’t see the cord-cutting,” said Simmons, citing his knowledge of what was going on at the company earlier in the decade. “They weren’t ready for it.”

ESPN has seen the economics of its business come under pressure as its subscriber count has made sizable decreases in recent years as pay-TV subscribers embrace options beyond the traditional channel bundle.

Part of the problem, according to Simmons, was that ESPN chief John Skipper didn’t replace himself in the oversight role of the content business when he added business oversight, which had previously been run separately by George Bodenheimer. Relying on a handful of lesser executives to drive innovation across content ultimately failed.

Simmons also noted that ESPN should have thought of itself as a technology company. “ESPN should have been in that mix but they are in Bristol,” he said of the Disney-owned network’s Connecticut-based headquarters. It’s harder for them to get technology guys and girls. they should have had a place in silicon valley, that was their biggest mistake.”

When CNBC correspondent Julia Boorstin, who conducted the interview with Simmons, countered that Disney had been making strides in technology with acquisitions like Bamtech, Simmons replied that ESPN could have been in a a position to build that kind of technology itself.

“They could have been at the forefront with some of that stuff and now they’re trying to catch up because of some of the decisions they made,” he said.

That said, you won’t find Simmons among the ESPN haters who suggest the network is going to capsize anytime soon. “They’re going to make $6 billion instead of $8 billion,” he observed. “They’ll be fine.”

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