ESPN president John Skipper held his customary session with sports media and business reporters on Tuesday following the network's "upfront" presentation to advertisers, and to no one's surprise, Bill Simmons was Topic One.
So much so that Skipper decided to address the soon-to-depart multi-platform star before even being asked a question about him.
"The decision I made earlier this week was business, which should not detract from the appreciation that I have for Bill Simmons for what he did," Skipper, a long-time personal and professional friend of Simmons, said at the Minskoff Theatre near Times Square. "He was at ESPN almost 15 years and did a fabulous job for us. He reinvented at one point the way you do sportswriting and became the most-read sportswriter in the history of that medium. He brought us Grantland, and did an unbelievable job, proved in addition to being an innovative writer that he was a terrific editor and discoverer of talent and nurturer of talent.
"He was a key contributor and founder of '30 for 30,' which you saw today we're going to do Chapter Three on. He wrote 'The Book of Basketball' while he was at ESPN, still the seminal work on the sport. And I'm sure I've forgotten four things. But I appreciate what Bill has done for us."
Skipper declined to comment on whether Simmons might still appear on one or more ESPN platforms before his contract expires in September.
"Anything we're talking about right now is appropriately personal and confidential and I suspect you'll hear from both Bill and I in the not-too-distant future about what we're up to," Skipper said.
While Skipper said the decision not to renew Simmons' contract was about "business," he said it was not primarily about money, despite reports he was seeking a raise from what is believed to be a $5 million-a-year deal.
"No, it didn't come down to money," Skipper said. "Look, we're a big company. If it was just dollars and cents we ultimately would have figured something out. It's about, ultimately, what he wants to do, what value that creates, what we want to do and deciding whether it's going to be a match.
"And we decided that ultimately there wouldn't be. But it would be incorrect to suggest it was about money."
So far, Simmons himself has been publicly silent on the subject. Skipper said he could not speak to Simmons' reasons for that.
"But I think that Bill is smartly thinking about what he's going to do," Skipper said, "And it is I hope the desire of all parties that there's no point in having a public fracas."
Skipper said ESPN remains "committed" to the Grantland site that Simmons created, and that he does not expect a mass exodus of talent.
"We're going to continue to do it, and we're going to continue to do it at the same level, both financially and staff-wise," Skipper said. "Bill did a great job building that site. I think he and I will be on the same page in suggesting we'll want to build on that legacy."
Has he been surprised by the level of interest in Simmons' impending departure?
"Every now and then I'm reminded of how much attention these kinds of things get; yes, I'm surprised," he said.
Skipper said his interest in re-signing a couple of big names whose deals are up soon, Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd, is "very high." He also said the Simmons saga will not keep ESPN from seeking to nurture big-name stars such as him in the future.
"We got fabulous value from Bill Simmons," Skipper said. "If any of you guys know another Bill Simmons, please let me know. Like a general manager, I'd like to find them as a rookie and get them under the rookie [salary] cap."
Other matters that came up during and after the upfront:
-- ESPN announced that its NFL wild-card game this winter will be simulcast on ABC, which like ESPN is owned by Disney, giving the game a wider potential audience.
"We've got the number one network for women and the number one network for men," Skipper said. "Our goal is to try to increase the audience. You see us becoming a little more opportunistic with ABC.
"We spent many, many years building the value of the ESPN sports brand, and we still do have one of the four big broadcast networks, which are ubiquitous, and we want to figure out where we can take advantage of it. The other place we think is the ESPYs, to try to build a larger audience."
Skipper said he is not concerned about annoying the distributors who pay good money for exclusive ESPN events.
"We've continued to add value to the ESPN package," he said. "We went back and reviewed the year with the NFL, talked about the wild-card game and what we might do. I think they'll agree with us. We brought that idea to them and suggested it would be an opportunity for us.
"We're competitive guys. We want to have the highest-rated playoff game, and that's what we're going to try to do."
The ESPYs this summer will move from ESPN to ABC. "We're just looking to be opportunistic," Skipper said when asked whether these are steps toward reviving the old ABC Sports brand. "It does not portend some dramatic shift in our emphasis."
-- Skipper explained the thinking behind the lawsuit ESPN filed against Verizon for its new "Custom TV" offering, which would compartmentalize the traditional pay TV bundle into genres such as one focused on sports.
ESPN long has not allowed itself to be part of such a la carte or specialized bundles, an idea that would disrupt the current model of the sports television business.
"Look, obviously we were concerned about their actions because we filed a lawsuit and we continue to believe they're not in conformity with their contract," he said.
But won't these sorts of issues continue to come up in a changing media landscape?
"Of course we're in a dramatic time of technological change, and clearly the way people consume video on different devices, on different kinds of subscriptions packages or free, it's a dramatic transformation," he said.
"And we don't resist the change. We do have contracts and it means that if you want to do things that are different you need to discuss it with us and we'll have a conversation and figure it out. As we did with Sling TV.
"We want to accommodate fans to watch the game in more places. On the other hand we understand we benefit from the pay television subscription system. By no means would it be prudent to simply suggest there's going to be a switch. There's not going to be a switch.
"There's going to be a complicated landscape with more choice in which people have these permutations of how they get their entertainment and we, of course, want to derive as much exposure, distribution and revenue as we can from that. That's what we're trying to do."
-- ESPN usually is a major source of profit for Disney, but it was down modestly in the fourth quarter of 2014.
"We provided guidance long ago that the first two quarters of this year that we would see some of the effects of the [higher sports] rights costs," Skipper said. "We feel very good that we've buttressed and protected our competitive position by re-signing a number of deals long term and because of the value of live rights those deals did increase in costs . . . It's not an issue."
-- Skipper on the ever-increasing number of college football bowl games, most of which are on ESPN: "It's obviously good business for us; we like the system," he said. "All it means is that more teams go home happy in college football than in any other sport. I don't hear any complaints from the athletes, from the coaches, from the fans, when their team goes to a bowl.
"Whatever that bowl is or wherever it is, it's a fun experience for those kids. If they're seniors it's their last game. And we enjoy doing it. As you know, we do very good business. They're two of our highest-rated weeks of the season."
-- ESPN announced the "Mike and Mike" morning radio show will move from Bristol, Conn., to Times Square on Feb. 8, 2016. In part, the idea is to share guests and on-air talent with "Good Morning America," the ABC program whose studio will be downstairs from the ESPN show.
To emphasize the point, the stars of GMA joined Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on the stage at the upfront.
-- Also starting in February of 2016, ESPN will add two new live hours of "SportsCenter" from 7 to 9 a.m. And late this summer, ESPN will hand a new midnight edition of the show to Scott Van Pelt, who no longer will do his radio show.
-- ESPN revealed some of the subjects for its next season of "30 for 30" documentaries, including ones on Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the early 1990s Buffalo Bills and Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield.
-- The Jets' Darrelle Revis appeared onstage with Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Frank Caliendo to help promote the upcoming season of "Monday Night Football." Tirico referenced "Deflategate" but did not ask Revis a question about it. Revis declined to speak to a Newsday reporter after the event.
-- ESPN announced a deal with Cablevision, which owns Newsday, to gather more specific data on audiences to provide better information to advertisers.