When Bill Simmons learned on Friday morning that his nearly 15-year-old relationship with ESPN was over, he responded with something uncharacteristic: silence.
He said nothing to his 3.7 million followers on Twitter. He did not pick up the phone or answer requests for comment. His agent and publicist followed his sounds of silence.
Simmons’s decision not to respond to the announcement by John Skipper, the president of ESPN, that his contract was not being renewed was surprising. He had built an empire on having his voice heard, often quite loudly, in a variety of roles: columnist, podcaster, editor in chief of the website Grantland, television analyst, and one of the creators of the “30 for 30” documentary series.
Simmons seemed to have been blindsided by the timing of ESPN’s decision, which came more than four months before his contract is to expire, at the end of September. An ESPN executive, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Skipper had told Simmons’s agent, James Dixon, that a decision had been made to end the relationship and that an announcement was coming. But Skipper did not call Simmons before going public, the ESPN executive said.
In an interview Friday morning, Skipper said: “I’ve decided that I’m not going to renew his contract. We’ve been talking to Bill, and it was clear that we weren’t going to get to the terms, so we were better off focusing on transition.”
Skipper also did not divulge what he was planning Thursday night in a phone call with one of his former top lieutenants, John A. Walsh, who recently retired as ESPN’s executive editor. Walsh was among Simmons’s biggest supporters and friends at ESPN.
“We talked about Bill a little,” Walsh said of his conversation with Skipper, “but when we hung up, I didn’t think I’d wake up and hear that Bill Simmons was not going to be renewed.”
Having made his decision, Skipper seized the narrative, and, in the absence of any reaction from Simmons or his camp, ESPN controlled the story all day.
It was certainly not a shock that Simmons and ESPN would part; he was suspended by ESPN last year and had openly questioned his place at the company to friends. Now that he is leaving, his profile as perhaps the most influential sportswriter in the country is almost certain to yield offers from legacy media companies, like Fox, or digital outlets, like Yahoo, which might offer him more money (he was making an estimated $5 million annually at ESPN) and perhaps more freedom to speak his mind. Shane Smith, the chief executive of Vice Media, was so eager to jump into the fray on Friday that he wrote on Twitter: “you are a beautiful baby boy and we love you very much. Come to VICE we make you happy for once in our misery lives.”
The possibility that Simmons might leave ESPN became more prominent last year after he was suspended for three weeks for calling N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar on a podcast at the height of the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal. In those comments, Simmons effectively dared his employers at ESPN to punish him.
On Thursday, he added to his criticism of Goodell on Dan Patrick’s syndicated radio show. During a discussion of the investigative report that looked into the deflation of footballs by the New England Patriots and the probable involvement of quarterback Tom Brady, Simmons said that Goodell lacked the “testicular fortitude” to impose punishment on Brady “until he gauges the public reaction.”
Skipper, who said he had made his decision about Simmons three weeks ago, would not discuss whether Simmons’s latest comments about Goodell, a valuable ESPN partner, had accelerated Friday’s announcement.
Whenever Simmons actually departs — those details are yet to be worked out — he will leave behind what is probably his signature achievement: Grantland, the sports and entertainment website that features his column, a variety of long-form stories and criticism; his podcast, the B.S. Report; and short “30 for 30” documentary films. The website also spawned the televised “Grantland Basketball Hour.”
Grantland will remain a part of ESPN’s cluster of websites developed around distinct personalities like Simmons; Nate Silver, who created the blog FiveThirtyEight; and Jason Whitlock, the prominent African-American columnist who is the central figure behind the Undefeated, a site focused on race and sports that is scheduled to launch at the end of next month. All three sites, ESPN officials said, are designed to survive with or without their founding editors.