I found myself watching ESPN recently and came to the realization that I just don’t care. I don’t care that Michael Phelps hit that bong, I don’t care who is on steroids and I don’t care who would be on a sports Mt. Rushmore. You see, ESPN has ruined sports. The once humble network has become a media giant that is more concerned with being hip and delivering witty punch lines than sharing scores, basic news stories and video highlights. Sportscenter, the flagship show of the station, has evolved into a horrible combination of a bad SNL audition and Access Hollywood.
Naturally, I am not the only one who feels disappointed and confused by the direction of ESPN. The advent of the Internet, and blogs specifically, has allowed the common fan to express their voice on a topic that many are passionate about. Sites like Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber are two of the best at lampooning sports media and taking an active role in providing an alternative source for sports news and commentary. The problem, with no obvious solution, with blogs and commentors on various blogs is the sense of entitlement and assumed expertise that each author presents. Ask Buzz what he thinks.
Blogs are ubiquitous these days. Anyone and everyone has a blog and it instantly gives someone a public forum to express their opinion. Unfortunately, some of the most opinionated people in the world are sports fans who feel they need to share their opinion on every trade, transaction, game and player. You have beef with your team’s coach because he doesn’t know how to work the rotation? In about five minutes you could be the proud owner of FireThatStupidCoach.com. Put up some poor content with your latest diatribe, a few pictures; send it out to some friends, get a laugh and then disappear into oblivion. This might have been clever back in ’02 but come on. Don’t we have enough sports blogs already? Players are even getting into the act, which is a welcome change to hear their perspective, but rarely do athletes contribute anything articulate and entertaining to the world besides unintentional comedy. I blame the over saturation of sports blogs on Bill Simmons.
I like Bill Simmons. I think he is a great writer. I smirk at his jokes and listen to his podcasts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bill as a person, his writing or the fact that Disney signs his checks. What Bill has managed to do is spectacular and quite enviable. But to fully understand Bill’s impact, we must comprehend what he’s accomplished.
To keep it short, the Boston Sports Guy had his own site, wrote about sports, moved to L.A. to write on Jimmy Kimmel Live, left the show to write for ESPN where he is currently probably their best and most popular columnist. Fuck Rick Reilly and that beer pong story.
But why is Simmons popular?
- He knows his shit. Simmons isn’t just some Monday morning quarterback who gives you his two cents because he thinks he’s right. He can easily switch between NBA salary cap talk, baseball hot stove and football analysis. While readers may only hear from him a couple times a week online, it’s obvious that he does his homework. Ultimately, his job is to write a sports column. You can’t do that with jokes alone. Sure, he’s a homer but who isn’t when talking shop?
- He’s not Bob Ryan or Mike Lupica. Bill Simmons is everything crotchety old sports writers are not. He doesn’t sit in a press box, he’s in touch with reality and does not hold himself up as the utmost authority on all things sports. By all accounts he is a family man, loyal friend and obsessive sports fan who’d rather watch old YouTube clips of classic sports moments than partake in the posh Hollywood scene that surrounds him. Sound familiar guys? In other words, people can relate to him.
- He’s a good writer. People think it’s easy to write until they actually start typing away at a keyboard. It takes years to perfect the craft and Bill has paid his dues and developed into a great author, despite what his censoring editors think. He has mastered the conversational tone by injecting humor and wit into his writings, making his columns easy to digest and a welcome distraction while working in your cubicle. Reading is fun! Reading a Simmons column is just like having a beer with Sully down at the pub and shooting the shit about sports while watching a game. Readers think to themselves while reading, “Hey! That’s what I said just the other day! I like Teen Wolf! I hate Clay Bennett too!” It never hurts to make pop culture references and create sports analogies between movies and music. People are dumb and only understand what is familiar to them—like Karate Kid and the Boogie Nights soundtrack. By also taking advantage of alternative column formats like running diaries, football picks and reader mailbag’s, Simmons is able to keep things fresh, take different angles on redundant topics and still remain relevant in reader’s minds.
Simmons has managed to master his niche, effortlessly straddling the line between hip blogger and sports journalist. Consumers of his work see where he has come from, see the style in which he has been successful, and think that they can do the same. Every boy grew up wanting to be a sports writer. Every guy wants to be paid to watch sports, sit at home all day and write jokes online. Technology and access to information in the unnecessary 24-hour sports news cycle falsely lead fans and wannabe writers to believe that what Bill Simmons does is easy.
Think about it. There are so many “experts” out on TV, radio, online and in print that I severely doubt the common sports blogger has anything new or original to bring to the table. Ninety percent of everything we read online is just regurgitated information in a different package. News, stats, rumors and scores are all out there for people to see. Beat writers re-cap games, AP gets you quotes, columnists put their own spin on stories. Besides lack of censorship and the ability to post immediate content, there is nothing a sports blogger can offer me. I’ll even argue that censorship and deadlines improve Bill Simmons writings (to a point). Anyone can crank out a paragraph, swear a couple times and throw in an off-color joke and call it a post. Bill is able to take a topic, make it significant, funny, entertaining and thought provoking. When was the last time you read something like that on With Leather?
Don’t get me wrong; I do like some sports blogs. Some are funny, informative and entertaining. But that’s it. Entertainment. When I want sports news I’ll scan the ESPN.com headlines, read my local sports section online and watch the ESPN bottom line. Everything else is just filler. The problem is that rather than creating their own identity, style, and tone, sports fans and bloggers have tried to emulate the godfather and pass off Simmons’ sense of humor and taste as their own. The strategy seems noble upon conception—my favorite quote comes to mind, “talent borrows, genius steals”—but when the market is flooded with impersonators, wouldn’t it makes sense to be unique to stand out?
Bill Simmons has achieved cult status because he cut his teeth doing what he loved and worked for everything he has earned. No matter where he writes in the future or whenever his NBA book comes out, I’m sure he will be very successful, but just because his fans relate to him does not mean they can be him. Simmons ends his famous mailbag columns with wild, almost disturbing actual emails from his readers, always ending with “Yup, these are my readers.” The single act of including these crazy emails from fans in his mailbag, acknowledging them, and actually responding shows that Simmons is self-aware of his fame and the ridiculousness of his position. He doesn’t need to say that his readers are obsessive fan-boys (and girls) envious of his life, wishing it was theirs, it’s plainly clear on its own.