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Why Is There Only One Bill Simmons?

April 8th, 2010 · 16 Comments · Sports Journalism

Really. Why is this?

Hertz has Avis. Coke has Pepsi. Adidas has Nike. Ford has GM … and Honda and Toyota and Hyundai, Renault, Volvo, BMW, Fiat, Mercedes …

Every great brand name in the world has a rival. Or 50.

Why doesn’t Bill Simmons?

How is it that one man has been able to swallow whole the entire profession of sports journalism? Why is no one able to replicate what he has done?

This is the most pressing question in modern American sports journalism, and I believe it is worth pondering for a few hundred words. Or more.

You all know who Bill Simmons is, right? writer/columnist/author. Has his own enormous wikipedia entry. Presumably put up by his fans and lovingly tended by them.

But you don’t need to read that. Not really. You already have read Bill Simmons. You know who I am talking about.

He is, simply, the most prolific sports writer of the age (and maybe of all time), who bashes out thousands of words per week while rarely losing our attention.

A few days ago, he hammered out 3,504 words on Rasheed Wallace. And I read every one of them. As did tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of readers.

He is good. No question. Funny, insightful, opinionated, original. And with enormous range.

He knows the NBA as well as anyone who isn’t employed by a team nor is credentialed for games.

He knows the NFL quite well.  Not like he does the NBA. But better than 99 percent of fans.

He knows baseball well; again, put him in the upper 10 percentile.

And he is quite familiar with pop culture,  especially pop culture from the 1980s forward, and has more than a passing acquaintance with sports gambling, which is important, too.

Now, that’s a broad spectrum of knowledge. Anyone who reads him wonders how it is possible for one guy to have an informed opinion on every modern television show of any significance, not to mention most movies produced over the past three decades — and every NFL, NBA and MLB team.

Impressive.  He must not sleep much. Perhaps he has people who watch these things for him, and write up brief reports for him. Like the CIA does for U.S.  presidents.  The State of Sports and Pop Culture in snippets of 30 words each.

But once upon a time, I’m sure he handled all this himself.

The man is not a god.

So why has no one — no one — emerged to do what he does? Why is no one even trying to do what he does?

I just took a tour of sports,, … and none of them appear to have anyone remotely similar to Simmons. All those sites have beat writers, and maybe bloggers. But they are overwhelmingly sport-specific, unless I am missing something — and if I am, feel free to enlighten me.

But the all-around, every-topic-is-game, 5,000-word-plus essayists? Not there. They do not exist.

Why is this?

I have some theories:

–Pretending to be an authority on the Big Three American Sports and pulling it off, with apt references to cable TV and modern cinema tossed in … is not an easy gig. No rival to Simmons has risen because no one else believes they can manage it — and those few who believe they can … have never gotten a forum.

–The traditional form of sports journalism resists innovation. The way it worked for more than a century? The sports columnist pontificated. The reader sat back passively and absorbed it. It was a one-way experience. And the better a columnist was, the more detached he (and it was nearly always he) became from his readers. The internet changed the rules.  But the elite of sports writing didn’t change with them. They were content to do their three, 800-word from-the-mountaintop declamations per week, and that was that.

–The arc of sports journalism history is choking off, so far, the development of Bill Simmons II. It is my contention that Simmons struck on a winning formula back at a time (the mid-1990s) when bloggers were easily dismissed by traditional print as the forum of choice for lightweight disseminators of half-baked opinions. Then, when Simmons emerged as an internet giant, and print journalism, in particular, went into free fall, the breeding grounds for a Simmons Rival … became slathered in radio-active waste.

Follow me here: His natural rivals ought to be the nation’s best sports columnists. But many (if not most) of those guys hate blogging … don’t want to work any harder than they already do … believe that an 800-word essay is the way to go … and (and this is key) are old. Fifty and up. Sixty. (Here is a very telling piece from the Chicago Reader about Bernie Lincicome, a very good columnist, who was laid off, tried blogging, didn’t like it and quit. With a link to his moribund blog. Basically, he couldn’t get past the “I don’t get paid” part of it.) And if the old guys do anything other than their print column … it is TV. It’s like they have only so many things to say, and believe that having more than three opinions a week is somehow blasphemous and demeans their brand. (TV is ephemeral, it doesn’t matter; an easy paycheck for a few sentences of faux emotion.)

Meantime, the collapse of print has throttled the development of the next generation of sports columnists. The guys (and now girls) in their 30s who, 20 years ago, would be pushing their way into a regular columnist role at, at the least, a suburban, honing their craft, getting ready for the next level — do not exist. As it turns out, the few surviving columnists in print are the most entrenched (read: crustiest), the very guys who loathe the net most. Meaning no Simmons rival can come from existing print, whether it’s the old school (Albom, Lupica, Ostler, Paige, Telander, Plaschke) or from the up-and-comers who are,  it seems to me, buried-and-lost.

Still, there ought to be a Simmons rival. What he does is not so unique that someone can’t do their own version of it. Clearly, he has demonstrated the existence of a huge market for what it is he does.

And maybe we should definite what “it” is: A nationally oriented sports column, probably with a geographical bias (because no one can be a hometown guy for 30-40 “major league” cities), with original thought and insightful commentary, an ability to synthesize tons of info and generate a coherent analysis — and write about 10,000 words a week.

In theory, someone is out there. Already out there. Even in these sad times for sports journalism, aren’t there still thousands of people doing notes columns in print? What Simmons does is, essentially, a notes column on steroids … mixed in with single-topic columns … on steroids.

At the same moment, there must be big-picture guys on the web, already hacking. Not getting paid, living off Ramen and churning out stuff … that isn’t quite good enough … or hasn’t quite gotten the exposure.

The closest thing we have to Simmons, right now? Jim Rome. He takes on numerous topics in a short period of time, synthesizes and produces hard-hitting commentary in a matter of a few sentences. It is Simmons-like, but it isn’t remotely as deep nor as wide, it lacks subtle humor — and it is ephemeral because it is TV or radio.

The other quasi-rivals to Simmons would seem to be nationally syndicated radio guys. But, again, most of them are too regional … and depend on callers to push the show along because even with the help of writers (and Rome, by the way, has a whole staff that writes for him) they can’t generate more than maybe 30 minutes of commentary in a day.

I do believe someone will come along to be Coors to Bill Simmons’ Budweiser. Someone with an overarching view, closely argued, explained in depth, with humor and a hipster’s vibe. It is doable.

Who that person will be, and when they will emerge … well, it’s been a decade now, and we haven’t seen them yet.

And so we wait … for the Second Coming.


16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Lassen // Apr 8, 2010 at 2:55 PM

    Never quite drank the Simmons Kool-Aid, although I will admit he can be very, very good at times. The Boston stuff wears mighty thin if you’re not from there, the length of some of his stuff is strikes me as awfully self-indulgent, and all the pop-culture references have become dangerously close to self-parody. If he hasn’t realized that, at least someone else has:

  • 2 Doug // Apr 8, 2010 at 7:11 PM

    Rome. Gaack. Yes he is talented, but he tries way too hard to be the coolest dude in the room and he has no respect for soccer.

  • 3 xamr1 // Apr 9, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    simmons kinds turns me off with his excessive boston stuff … but i will agree that his stuff on the nba and the nfl is pretty darn good

  • 4 Nathan // Apr 9, 2010 at 9:59 AM

    I don’t follow the NBA, never have, probably never will, but I read “The Book of Basketball” cover to cover and thoroughly enjoyed every page of it.

  • 5 Junior // Apr 9, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    Don’t forget that Simmons pumps out two or three podcasts a week too. I go through phases where I read everything he’s written, then basically stay in touch with what he’s talking about by dipping in to the occasional podcast before going back to his columns again.

    I think the fact of his active presence in that additional medium may have something to do with his success. The columns are good their own (though I agree sometimes the constant cultural references can become a bit annoying), there’s no doubt about that. But Simmons has built an army of followers by recognizing and involving himself in evolving facets of Net culture like podcasting and Twitter.

  • 6 James // Apr 9, 2010 at 11:43 AM

    I generally agree with you on Simmons, though his shtick grows more and more predictable all the time.

    I wouldn’t call him a rival, but Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski easily equals Simmons’ output on his blog, and writes more eloquently, even if he’s not as pop culture reference-driven.

  • 7 Deano // Apr 9, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    When you’re the best you’re going to get a lot of guys who want to take shots at you. I like Deadspin too but they like to take cheapshots at Simmons although they produce nothing near what he does.

    What amazes me is who has time to consume all of Simmons’ material!!? You didn’t really mention the podcasts he puts out but there again is a few hours a week of material. I listen to them when I run and it makes it so much easier for the time to pass by.

    I’ve definitely drank the Kool Aid of Simmons but it’s only because he’s funny, he’s original (like his trip to Vegas recap for example), he cares about the same stuff I do (sports and shows like Lost), he has great guests (the NFL writers he gets, his buddy Sal, and even his friends are all good) and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s the first one to point out when he goofs like the first round of NFL playoffs this past year.

    I just really really wish there was someone who could write about hockey the way he covers the NBA. I’m not a fan of the NBA at all but I will still read his NBA draft diary.

  • 8 Chuck Hickey // Apr 9, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    The Boston stuff does get old. I’ll read anything Posnanski writes.

  • 9 Noel // Apr 9, 2010 at 5:08 PM

    Hey Chuck Hickey, for Hockey check this guy out. Brilliant funny stuff. I love Simmons and I’d say this guy is just as funny, without the pop culture stuff.

  • 10 JK // Apr 9, 2010 at 5:22 PM

    You’re right. He has no rival and no one is even close. I’ve read every word he’s written since 2000 when he first came to ESPN (including both books) and listened to every podcast.

  • 11 CR99 // Apr 9, 2010 at 8:54 PM

    One thing Paul leaves out in his excellent column is Simmons’ ambition. I think Simmons’ attempt to compare the comebacks of Tiger and Muhammad Ali is among his biggest misfires ever, but, jeez, having the cojones to even try is impressive.

    I also think there is something generational going on. The tendency of older columnists like Plaschke and Lupica and Albom to offer sweeping moral judgments of athletes, teams, cities, whole sports — well, I think that just tends to nauseate younger sports fans. I mean, Plaschke once ripped Los Angeles as a community because Sparks’ attendance was low. Are you bleeping kidding me?

    Simmons almost always stays off his moral high horse. Thank God for that.

    Hi, Chuck Hickey. I hired you in 1997. You never gave me the kickback you promised. You owe me big.

    Just kidding. As far as the authorities know.

  • 12 Slake // Apr 9, 2010 at 9:03 PM

    How about Mark Titus, founder of the Trillion Man March, and protege of Simmons.

  • 13 Tom // Apr 10, 2010 at 9:19 AM

    There’s a few facts people seem to be overlooking:

    One is that his columns don’t use quotes. He doesn’t actually speak to athletes to get their point of view. His latest column about Rasheed Wallace: No quotes from Wallace, nothing from his teammates, nothing from Boston’s coaches or the GM. Most columns you see in newspapers or on websites actually talk to people and use quotes. So he doesn’t give the other side a chance to do a rebuttle.

    The second is that because he doesn’t talk to athletes or see them everyday, he doesn’t need to worry about retribution. In his book, Simmons rails on the media for not going after different stories, afraid that teams might stop talking to such and such a reporter. He thinks the media won’t rag on a certain player at times because they are worried they’ll lose the friend-like atmosphere between the journalist and the athlete. What’s the worse that can happen, he asks, that the teams will get angry at a reporter? But Simmons admits fear at Isiah because of columns he wrote that made fun of Isiah.

    So Simmons wants more print media to be like him, when he doesn’t even need to worry about seeing these people every day, but he admits to be worried about meeting someone he made fun of (and didn’t even want to meet Isiah). Sounds a little hypocritical.

    The last point is that Simmons writes one column a week (less when he’s taking time off for a book). Dan Wetzel of Yahoo, for example, has written 11 columns since April 1. In the same time, Simmons has written maybe two columns (a Wrestlemania 26 diary and a Rasheed Wallace column). And I think the Wrestlemania one was before April 1.

    Pierre Lebrun, an ESPN hockey columnist, has written eight pieces since April 1, and he took a week off!

    So yeah, maybe there should be more columnists like Simmons, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

  • 14 anon // Apr 14, 2010 at 8:20 AM

    You never feel like your watching/reading/listening to an act with Simmons. Feels very authentic and honest. A lot of sports commentators slap a stupid grin on their face or play to a stereotype (Mike and Mike). Fans see through that, and it’s boring.

    There’s two other guys out there who I like as much as Simmons, Kornheiser and Lebetard. And while both are authentically funny and knowledgeable about sports and pop culture, neither are as prolific.

  • 15 Jay // Apr 23, 2010 at 1:42 PM

    You have to check out Petros and Money on Fox Sports Radio. Hardcore sports, lots of pop culture, awesome guests, and they are the most creative and hilarious show on the radio. The have a Southern California tilt, but they cover national stories in great detail as well.

    They don’t write, but as far as content, you can’t beat it.

  • 16 There is hope // Jul 2, 2010 at 7:02 AM

    new site, good stuff

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