Bill Simmons was, for a long while, the most prominent voice in sports journalism.
A megaforce at ESPN, he became nearly unavoidable through his columns; his podcasts; his spinoff website, Grantland; and the “30 for 30” documentary series, which he helped create and run.
After an angry split last year with ESPN, which Simmons appears not to have gotten over, he signed with HBO and created The Ringer, a Grantland-like website.
But with his first major failure – HBO’s recent cancellation of his show, “Any Given Wednesday” – his voice has been diminished.
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Last week, during the final episode, Simmons’ friend Jimmy Kimmel, the ABC late-night host, read from a daunting list detailing the broadcast competition that the show had faced, including the Olympics, a presidential debate and the World Series.
“You could argue all you want – God doesn’t want you to be on television,” Kimmel said.
But Simmons’ failure was not only about the competition. What became clear at HBO was also apparent at ESPN: Simmons is not good on television. His informed but freewheeling and logorrheic writing voice and the loose persona he brings to podcasting do not translate well to onscreen work. Still, HBO had offered him “Any Given Wednesday” as part of a broad deal to join the network.
Michael Lombardo, then HBO’s president for programming, apparently set out to woo Simmons based on his podcasting work. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he had been impressed by episodes of the podcast in which Simmons had interviewed Lena Dunham, the star and creator of HBO’s “Girls,” and Serge Ibaka, an NBA forward.
“I just thought, ‘This guy can go from Lena to Serge Ibaka with such passion and dexterity, I have to meet him,’ ” said Lombardo, who left HBO shortly before “Any Given Wednesday” made its debut in June.
Lombardo declined to comment further.
Simmons described to The Hollywood Reporter how he was smitten with Lombardo after being stung by John Skipper, ESPN’s president and Simmons’ former patron, who decided not to keep him.
“It was like being in a super-unhappy marriage,” Simmons said, “and then just meeting someone at the grocery store and being like: ‘Oh, that girl’s cool. I could date that person.’”
But “Any Given Wednesday” showed that Simmons was not a compelling TV personality. It became evident, quite soon, that he would not create a triumvirate of great HBO hosts with Bill Maher and John Oliver.
Maher ably fills several roles on his show, “Real Time”: stand-up comic, interviewer, panel host and essayist. Oliver, on “Last Week Tonight,” is a genius monologuist and an outrageous wit. Their programs rest on their continuing brilliance and idiosyncratic personalities.
“Any Given Wednesday” could not rely on Simmons’ force of personality to generate a consistently big audience. Too often, he was bland and looked as if he wanted to duck into a podcast studio to chat with his frequent guest Sal Iacono, known as Cousin Sal.
By the Oct. 26 show, which was opposite a World Series game and was watched by only 82,000 viewers, it was clear that Simmons’ first season would be his last. Overall, the episodes averaged 200,000 viewers for their premiere showings – about a fifth of Maher’s audience.
The show became too dependent on its guests’ ability to overcome an awkward format that wedged them into segments like “Mailbag.” Some guests – like Larry Wilmore, whose “Nightly Show” was canceled by Comedy Central in August, and Charlamagne Tha God, a host of “The Breakfast Club,” a syndicated radio show – were so good that they could have been auditioning for HBO hosting jobs.
The soccer star Abby Wambach also excelled despite the limitations of the show. And an episode featuring Bob Costas and Al Michaels served as a reminder of what a terrific host Costas had once been at HBO.
Simmons was best at commentaries on issues, as in a segment about a failed referendum to fund a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers. Augmented by video and animation, the commentaries showcased witty, snarky writing.
HBO remains invested in its former host in a way it was not when it canceled Joe Buck’s show after three episodes in 2009. Simmons will most likely return with another HBO show that depends more on documentary work, like the “30 for 30” series, than on his on-air presence.
Simmons did not respond to a request by email to comment for this article.
The Ringer, with its garish green color scheme, is Simmons’ attempt to serve the audience that had flocked to Grantland. But although the new website, like the old one, is producing a mix of sports and popular-culture content, as well as coverage of politics and technology, Grantland’s fans are not rushing to The Ringer.
The Ringer, which launched in June and receives a small portion of its financial support from HBO, had 1.2 million unique visitors in July, according to comScore, which measures web traffic. That figure fell to 643,000 in August but rose slightly to 680,000 in September, the last month for which numbers are available. Grantland had 6.1 million visitors in October 2015, at the end of its four-year run.
The Grantland writing gang did not move en masse to The Ringer, either. Some writers followed Simmons, but a bunch of new staff members are writing articles that are shorter than those that appeared on Grantland, where word counts routinely reached into the thousands.
The shift reflects the evolving needs of fans who lack the time or desire to scroll through 7,500-word features on their smartphones.
Still, the most conspicuous absence is Simmons’ written voice. He has published only a few columns on The Ringer, perhaps because of his focus on the HBO show.
Simmons’ crazy-long columns formed the foundation of Grantland. Without a regular dose of them, The Ringer relies on his successful podcasts to give readers their doses of the founder’s ruminations.
It is worth wondering if Simmons launched The Ringer a little too late in a digital world that increasingly requires bigness, like an association with ESPN or a partnership along the lines of the one between Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports’s digital properties. Those entities are also speaking to Simmons’ audience, as is Bleacher Report, which was acquired by Turner Sports four years ago.
Faced with competition he did not have to be concerned with at Grantland, Simmons may not have a long time to figure out how to expand his Ringer audience – and, at the same time, how to reclaim his ebbing voice.