How Can Professionals Learn from Bill Simmons's Separation from ESPN?

Bill Simmons is a sports personality that had his own podcasts (the “BS Report” and “Bill Don’t Lie”), was the former Editor-in-Chief of Grantland.com (a sports and pop culture website), is one of the creators of the Emmy winning “30 for 30” series, is a New York Times bestselling author, and has more Twitter followers than the NHL, Hilary Clinton, the Daily Show, Martha Stewart, or Coca Cola.

What’s remarkable is that none of his job titles include that he is also an ESPN employee. Well, former employee as ESPN first announced it would not renew his contract when it ends in September. The two sides then agreed that Simmons will no longer keep working for ESPN, but will receive the reminder of his salary.

Bill Simmons has done an excellent job of building his own brand. When Simmons moves to a new company in the fall, his Twitter audience of more than 4 million people will follow him. He has consistently promoted his own name and content, despite being an ESPN employee for the last 14 years. For example, even prior to ESPN announcing that it would not renew his contract, Simmons’s Twitter bio did not mention ESPN, only his projects and accomplishments. His self-branding will create several options for Simmons as he looks for a new job.

From ESPN’s perspective, it was profitable for the company to hire Simmons as he brought in engaged viewers, and had creative ideas. However, Simmons became too much of a problem as he routinely criticized the commissioner of ESPN’s largest client – the NFL. He also took shots at other ESPN personalities, creating internal conflicts. In his recent negotiations with ESPN, Simmons also apparently demanded $6 million per year.

Executives and professionals can learn from Simmons.

  • Promote Yourself. When you’re introducing yourself to a prospective client, or at a networking event, focus on yourself. Instead of being “John Smith, Vice President” of a major company, you’re “John Smith, Vice President.”

While it’s hard to admit, performance isn’t always as important to success at a company as customer demand. There are qualified people who can do that medical procedure, or put together a business proposal. But it is rare to be someone that customers seek. When patients come to a medical practice because of a specific physician, it helps the physician’s bottom line. If you have a large following, your employer will be happy as it makes more money. If you employment does end, you will be able to leave with a huge book of business.

Simmons, for example, was wrong in a lot of his sports predictions, and the quality of his writing decreased recently. Yet, he continued to have a strong following. While ESPN decided to end its relationship with Simmons, ESPN made that decision because Simmons sought more power and influence, and after he reportedly made $3–5 million for talking and writing about sports. When he moves on to his next job, he will continue to make a substantial amount of money due to his brand.

  • Use Social Media. It is incredibly easy to reach a broad spectrum of people through Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Use these social outlets to create your own brand.

Use social media to shape a public persona. How do you want prospective clients to perceive you? For example, reading through Simmons’s tweets, he comes across as huge Boston sports fan. He seems like a guy you might see at a bar passionately talking about the Boston Celtics. Not surprisingly, he works in sports journalism. His tweets also make him seem like a good boss as he routinely promotes his employees’ articles and work. It would hard to guess from his tweets that some of Simmons’s co-workers at ESPN might not like him.

Learn from Simmons and the last 14 years of his career. He went from being a bartender in Boston, to starting a blog on AOL in the 90s, to having millions of people following him on Twitter. While ESPN will continue to profit, so will Simmons. And it’s in large part because Simmons consistently focused on promoting himself. He started planning his exit strategy from ESPN before his job even began.