One of my most memorable moments of my college paper career occurred during the spring of my senior year. I was sitting across a meeting room table from Boston Globe writer and ESPN contributor Bob Ryan, who had come talk with upperclassmen at his old alma mater about the industry. During his brief time with us, I got to lob a question at Ryan, and although it was a few years back, I recall asking him something along the lines of, “How do you feel about the new journalism coming from guys like Bill Simmons? Is he stealing some of your space while writing from the perspective of a fan?”
The memory will never leave me, because Ryan looked like he was not amused. I’m paraphrasing here from a foggy memory, but his answer was: “I’m a journalist. He doesn’t speak for all of us who have made a career out of reporting sports for decades.”
I respect Ryan – especially as someone who grew up reading him in the Globe. But that was a moment I realized that becoming the traditional, in-the-trenches sports reporter was long gone. For years, I pictured the massive divide between the press box and the bleachers, but Simmons was the first to successfully demonstrate that there didn’t have to be. He was on to something a lot sooner than the rest of us, he was writing in a blog style long before there were blogs, and ESPN recognized his talent and style quick enough to make a smart move and bring him aboard.
As someone who is one of the many influenced by Simmons, an everyman fan who has been a writer at ESPN.com for more than a decade, I will be among the first to admit he isn’t the pure commoner he once embodied. However, he still is putting himself out there from a very non-traditional place in the sports media world. He has such a distinct spot in the last decade of the Worldwide Leader, and not just on dot-com, but also because of his New York Times bestsellers, the 30 for 30 sports documentary series he produces and his star-studded podcast, The BS Report. He has a self-carved empire somewhere in the middle of “Booyah” and the screaming heads of Pardon The Interruption and Around The Horn.
The normal preaching about Simmons’s career appears in a column in April’s Atlantic Monthly by Isaac Chotiner. While a heavy emphasis on Simmons recent bestselling The Book of Basketball, Chotiner still gives plenty of ink to the following that the sportswriter has earned through his personality and style:
In public, Simmons fans love to yell out “Hey, Sports Guy!”—which (again) recalls voters who, when interviewed on camera about their candidate of choice, say that he is “one of us.” To Simmons’s credit, however, the unassuming nickname actually fits him comfortably. In certain respects, the public figure that Simmons most clearly resembles is the early David Letterman, although Letterman has never tried to seem like an average guy. Still, they have one thing in common: the way they personalize their work.
Chotiner sets up an even more interesting dichotomy in the column when he begins by referencing Bill James, whose stat-crunching encyclopedia of baseball is also very present as an influence to the works of Michael Lewis. Whether the obvious ties in Moneyball or the more shrouded stat-mind in the sports part of The Blind Side (i.e., the book, not the movie), Lewis is clearly a bookish disciple of James. The thing is that Simmons is kind of the opposite side of the same coin of Lewis; Chotiner places his tome of Basketball at the opposite end of the bookcase from James’s equally voluminous archive of statistics, yet certainly deserving of the same shelf.
This imagery is important for this era of journalism: Simmons is comprehensive in his coverage of sports, but not even close to the same way as James and Lewis. He grew up among fans in the decade of citizen journalism and online publishing, and he hasn’t let that change how he writes – he is proud to know Matt Saracen’s stats in the same way he does Matt Cassel’s. That has to irritate the crap out of the guys who’ve filed hurried game summaries from press boxes of low market teams to work their way up.
Yet, as Simmons has grown in popularity, the same problem has alienated him slightly from the fan base that once adores him. There’s a running joke about the time ESPN opened up comments for Simmons’ regular written columns – and how quickly the vitriol (actual comments in this 2007 Deadspin post) forced them to shut down that section for his posts still to this day.
In an exclusive interview with Mediaite last fall, Bill mentioned to Colby Hall:
You can’t work for ESPN and NOT be part of the establishment. For most people, we are the Starbucks of sports. When I started writing for them, it was like a switch went off — suddenly I was getting these “you sold out” emails and I’m like, “I sold out? Where’s the money?
The question I have, though, involves whether or not the establishment accepts him. It’s one thing to be a part of it, it’s quite another to be invited to the reporters’ buffet. As much as that ESPN tag makes him one of “The Man,” Simmons still has to fight the battle of being alongside the Rick Reillys, Gene Wojciechowskis and Bob Ryans of the world, with whom he still doesn’t line up perfectly. He’s as much outside the circle as inside of it in that regard.
Chotiner partly discussed Simmons in the same breath as David Letterman’s comedy stylings in the Atlantic feature. Letterman didn’t care who thought throwing watermelons off roofs wasn’t funny, he did it anyway; Simmons likewise doesn’t mind if you aren’t a fan of the television critics, fiction authors and former college roommates he parades through his podcasts. Changing the style to appease fans or join the reporter’s gallery isn’t in him – and even if he stands alone in this middle ground, he still will forever change the notion that there is no cheering in the press box. Because of him, the cheap seats are just as likely of a home for the next game changer in the future of sports journalism.