Sports Guy Bill Simmons: Journalism’s Future?

March 27, 2010
By | 11 Comments

I’m not a typical sports fan.  I don’t closely follow and only sporadically watch.  Yet I know a considerable amount about the politics, Vegas lines, player personalities, and upcoming draft picks for most sports.  Why and how do I know a disproportionate amount of sports esoterica?  Simple:  The Sports Guy.

The Sports Guy, also known as Bill Simmons, got his start in journalism online, reporting on his beloved Boston teams from the perspective of an unabashed fan at Digital City Boston before coming into his own on’s ‘Page 2’ and ‘The B.S. Report’ podcast.  While he’s written two books, his primary mode of engagement is throughly rooted in new media: he blogs, chats, podcasts, and tweets religiously.

He’s a sportswriter, but unlike, the melodramatic musings of, say, Rick Reilly, Simmons is actually a pop intellectual masquerading as a sports writer.  He simply views the enormous sphere of American popular culture through the lens of sports and its attendant structures, emotions, reception, gossip, and metaphors.  Sometimes this unification is manifested overtly; at others, he eschews explicit sports talk altogether, opting instead to spend an entire poll, column, or podcast detailing the Blackberry for cheaters (trademark: ‘The Infidel’), the merits of Friday Night Lights, or the best ‘first boobs’ film moments.

To facilitate the process, Simmons has amassed a vast network of regular pop culture guests, including Chuck Klosterman, Jon Hamm, Adam Carolla, TV critic Alan Sepinwall, and SNL’s Seth Meyers; he also calls on longtime friends and colleagues (Jack-O; ESPN producer and ‘reality TV czar’ Dave Jacoby) to discuss specific shows, sports rivalries, and scandals.

But why does Simmons matter — and is his style really anything new?  Crucially, he rose to fame by writing in a blog-style before blogs even existed, gaining a tremendous (albeit niche) readership, then parlaying that popularity into a national readership.  He’s basically the journalistic version of the YouTube musician.  He cares little for long-form investigative journalism or even interviews with the players.  He’s a fan, and wants to stay that way — thereby increasing reader identification and loyalty exponentially.

And don’t forget the fact that he’s a.) funny and b.) totally a Beta-dude.  In other words, he’s a guy’s guy, but by no means an Alpha jock; his very existence validates your cerebral, thoroughly armchair-based sports obsession.  For while his beloved Red Sox are historically a working man’s team, Simmons and his fan base represent the new brand of white collar, fantasy-league-centric sports fan — the only fans still wealthy enough to buy seats outside of the nosebleeds.  These fans — male or female — can engage in the sort of pop culture puzzles and analogies favored by Simmons, writing into his Mailbag and participating in chat sessions, because they work at sort of desk jobs that create space, both intellectually and technologically, to do so.

Finally, Simmons is theoretically a conglomerate’s dream — albeit an imperfect, glitchy one.  He increases the loyalty of pre-exisiting ESPN while pulling in those, such as myself, outside its expected reach, simultaneously consolidating and expanding the ESPN brand.  And while he’s quick to chide the ESPN powers-that-be, he also deftly promotes ESPN products, including the recent 30 for 30 series for which he served as an executive producer.

But Simmons’ intrinsic conglomerate value lies most explicitly in his potential to create non-traditional lines of synergy, promoting media products within his home conglomerate’s galaxy.  ESPN is owned by Disney, creating any number of possible connections.  But for now, at least, Simmons has succeeded in resisting whatever pressure Disney may or may not have leveled.  He appears to interview people and talk about shows that he likes, including those, such as The Wire, that are about as far from a Disney product as possible, regardless of network or studio.  Nevertheless, Simmons’ style of commentary — niche but broad in both audience and in topic, complimented by a diversified means of distribution — seems to be a potential model of journalism, sports or otherwise, for the future.


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11 Responses to “ Sports Guy Bill Simmons: Journalism’s Future? ”

  1. Jason Mittell on March 27, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    Nice column – I’ve often thought of Simmons as a harbinger of new media journalism, having been reading him for over a decade (!). One of the interesting transformations that took place is when he shifted from writing solely as an outsider – a fan looking into the sports establishment – to being part of that establishment, interviewing athletes, coaches, celebrities, and even commissioners. I still like him best when he’s chatting with his buddies, recapturing the fannish enthusiasm that made me his fan.

  2. Michael Dwyer on March 27, 2010 at 9:54 AM

    I don’t know if he’s journalism’s future because he’s certainly not a journalist, but he’s certainly staking out a claim for the future of pop intellectuals. I’m reminded how he dragged Klosterman onto Twitter, or how he’s embraced the podcast form. And while there’s plenty of reasons to think he’s kind of a jerk, you also have to hand it to him–he values thinking (unlike most of sports talk radio), and really paved the way for all kinds of new sports outlets online like FreeDarko or Run of Play that allow for thinking critically about sports as a cultural phenomenon without losing the joys of fandom.

  3. Evan Elkins on March 27, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    Great post, Annie. It’s always nice to see sports media get some love (or at least attention) in media studies.

    Simmons seems to be a sort of ambivalent patriarch for all of the sports blogs and bloggers that have cropped up within the last five years or so–Deadspin being the most prominent example. It’s hard to think of another media empire that holds as strong a monopoly on its niche as ESPN, so it comes as no surprise that fans would flock to other forms of sports writing as both producers and consumers. But as you and Jason note, Simmons is ultimately part of the ESPN hegemony, and it’s interesting to see sports bloggers offer him due deference for paving the way while bashing him for “selling out” or being disingenuous in his “regular fan” pose. Deadspin founder Will Leitch wrote about this tension in a fairly recent post:

    As for your point on Simmons as Beta-dude, this is a part of his work–and that of sports bloggers more generally–that tends to rankle me. Though it may have shifted away from an Alpha-jock mode, it still seems difficult for sports writing, even in “alternative” or new-media forms, to get beyond masculine or even misogynist rhetoric (I’m thinking here of his unfortunate tendency to trash the WNBA at any given opportunity, for example).

    • Myles McNutt on March 27, 2010 at 11:10 PM

      While I am not entirely familiar with Simmons’ work, I wonder whether we can really gender the trashing of the WNBA anymore; pop culture sort of co-opted the WNBA as the definitive example of a league that no one watches or cares about, to the point where I think of it more in context with that joke than with actual criticism of the league, its competitiveness, or the women involved.

      Accordingly, I’d be tempted (without context, of course) to consider that tendency more of a sign of a bad sense of humour as opposed to a misogynistic impulse, although I’m curious to know if it goes beyond the unfortunate trope to be more specifically problematic.

      • Annie Petersen on March 28, 2010 at 12:21 PM

        Part of what fascinates me about Simmons is my own reaction to him — specifically, the fact that his very mild misogyny doesn’t bother me. It’s as if his likability — and I really think this comes out most strongly in the podcasts, as he has a great radio voice — somehow neutralizes all my feminist politics. Because yes, he totally rags on the WNBA and womens’ sports more generally; yes, he very rarely, if ever, has women as guests on the show, preserving and elevating a homosocial space; yes, he treats women as impediments to sportsfandom, rather than fans themselves. But again, because he comes off as such a nice, self-deprecating, general non-misogynist, the subtle sexism flies under the radar.

        • Tim Anderson on March 29, 2010 at 7:44 AM

          It’s funny you say this as he often admits his “radio voice” is terrible. Also, numerous jokes are made at his expense for having such a high-pitched, unmasculine voice when compared to so many other sports broadcasters. I think this may be part of his charm for others, too.

          • Annie Petersen on March 29, 2010 at 10:25 AM

            That *is* hilarious — and now that you mention it, I definitely recall the criticism/self-mockery. But I love his voice! It’s the perfect voice for his personality! But I can definitely see why a.) it’s not a traditional ‘sports’ voice (I mean, I don’t want him to do play-by-play, I just want him to talk about Survivor) and b.) it wouldn’t bug me, as I’m not a traditional sports fan. I’m a podcast fan — and he does one of the best, most regular, and most consistently amusing.

  4. Brad Schauer on March 27, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    I also like Simmons, but I’m often irritated rather than excited by the way he straddles the line between fandom and journalism. I feel like he takes advantage of his “insider” access when it’s fun and convenient, but then falls back on the “I’m just a fan” excuse when it’s time to do actual journalistic labor. The “outsider” status is also a way of shirking any accountability for his predictions, speculation, etc.

    In the same sense, with his BOOK OF BASKETBALL Simmons uses his identity as a blogger to avoid having to compose a “real” book — i.e. a coherent, well-structured piece of analytical history, rather than a 700-page, loosely organized collection of thoughts. I’m an NBA fan as well as a Simmons fan, but even I found this a frustrating and arduous read. He clearly knows his stuff and put some time in watching old footage and interviews, only to structure the book like a blog (e.g. lists of the greatest players, lists of “what if?” scenarios, etc.)

    To be fair, writing a “real” book would have taken time away from Simmons’ bread and butter on, and he admits the book is “bathroom reading”, but I still can’t help seeing THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL as a missed opportunity.

    • Tim Anderson on March 27, 2010 at 10:57 AM

      Agreed – BOOK OF BASKETBALL was so hard for me to read because he avoids narrative like the plague. I wanted to tear right through it, however it is designed for a short moments when you can read. He’s one of the few people who could have written this book, but I really wanted so much more. Also, and this is where the fandom gets very annoying, it often reads like the BOOK OF BOSTON CELTIC BASKETBALL. As a west coaster by comparison, I can tell you this is frustrating since fandom overwhelms any sense of objectivity. By comparison, the best book on the NBA is David Halberstam’s THE BREAKS OF THE GAME which is about the 1979 Portland Trailblazers. While the Blazers were very competitive, winning a championship in 1977, they were on a downturn and Halberstam, as east coast as they come, did due diligence and really lived with the team. The result is you begin to understand all of the systems that go into NBA decisions at multiple levels. By comparison, reading the BOOK OF BASKETBALL you get the feeling that this is a person who loves the game but could never decommit from his duties of being Bill Simmons, which would mean not podcasting, not involving his buddies in his work as much (I know way too much about his friends from Holy Cross college days because of his podcasts), etc.

      That said, his podcasts are always great. His personality and his friends work well within the format. The emergence of this as a model is really great for fandom because it appeals to their passions. However, this cult of personalities is really a interesting dilemma for journalism. He has had a longstanding “feud”, albeit a mild one with Rick Reilly about writing style that details some of the above-mentioned complaints. And, yes, I listen all the time, even to the Chuck Klosterman talks, another journalist who fits into the Simmons mode of opinionated reportage. The combination of the two always devolves into a very interesting wrestling match over whose podcast it is. And, yes, the conversation is interesting and that is what Simmons is: a conversationlist first and a journalist second. On somedays, though, I wish the order was sometimes reversed. That’s particularly true when you write a 700 page book whose title makes an authoritative claim about my favorite sport.

  5. Deron Overpeck on March 27, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    I enjoy Simmons’s writing but find that I like it less and less; that is, his columns are fun (I don’t listen to his podcasts) but his “I’m a fan! Just like you!” persona is not as believable lately. And not just because he’s now on ESPN — he also has people like Malcolm Gladwell as a guest so they can pat one another on the back for being so right. During his weekly NFL picks column, one of the sidebars is sponsored (by Miller Lite, I think) so he’s now being more or less paid by a beer company to write about sports.

    As to whether or not he’s journalism’s future… let’s be honest: what is printed on the majority of the nation’s sports pages is wan journalism at best (and I say that as someone who has a BA in journalism, is the son and nephew of sports journalists, and goes to the sports page first on Sunday mornings). Sports journalists get the facts right, usually, but do little investigative work. And they are by necessity fannish — specific team moves might be questioned, but the team itself must be something desirable and desired. Said style is a necessity in order to attract readers who more often than not are fans of the team first and the sport itself second. This is not all that different than the approach to news taken by FOX News and MSNBC: a political position is taken as a given, little investigative work is done, and critiques of that position are kept within tolerable limits. So perhaps the question isn’t “Is Bill Simmons the future of journalism?” but “Is sports journalism the future of journalism?”

  6. […] be ample posting in the weeks to come.  If you’re even slightly sports-minded, do check out my recent post on Bill Simmons (aka ‘The Sports Guy’) over at Antenna.  While you’re there, I’d also […]