Remember when Bill Simmons was going to have Barack Obama on his podcast?
My bet is that he can’t forget. This Rick Reilly piece won’t help.
I’m loath to fuel the fire of publicity, hype, and news about news that ESPN thrives on, but I was going to write something about Simmons today and I just saw this new log, so I’m piling on.
If you’re not one of the fourteen or so people who listen to “The B.S. Report,” Simmons’ once- or twice-weekly foray into podcasting, well, you could be forgiven. Simmons, whose nasal drone can grate, makes the podcast a fun hour of listening with his wit and good humor. He establishes rapport with his guests, who are often, like Gus Ramsey, JackO, or Cousin Sal, friends mentioned for years in columns, but sometimes bigger names like Bill Walton, Gus Johnson, Danica Patrick, and Seth Meyers.
But Obama, a Chicago sports fan and seemingly cool guy, would be the biggest name he’s ever had, and I’d guess an hour with the two of them talking would turn the podcast into the best Simmons has ever done.
So I, a weekly listener to that podcast, was a bit disappointed when that idea was scrapped. Today, I was equally surprised to see Reilly’s column.
I was skeptical after a first read of the article: wouldn’t we have heard about such a brilliantly conceived column before it happened?
“We wound up in a dark tunnel under First Third Field in Dayton for a campaign event.”
The Wall Street Journal confirms Obama was at a Dayton minor league baseball stadium on October 9th, the Thursday prior to the NFL’s Week 6 games:
“Sen. Obama’s two-day bus tour through the state began at a minor-league baseball park in the working-class town of Dayton.”
And though Reilly gets the name wrong, Fifth Third Field in Dayton does exist.
So, assuredly, it’s true; that’s helped by the fact that nowhere on the page for Reilly’s column is there any hint that it’s not real.
But why would ESPN give Reilly the go-ahead on this and not Simmons?
Simmons has a much greater Internet presence than Reilly ever will; he’s gone from being one of the best bloggers in that medium’s infancy to a blogger emeritus/author/columnist with the stature of any other ESPN name. “Now I Can Die in Peace” was a New York Times bestseller; that phrase, which gets tacked on de rigeur to any book that achieves the status, is nowhere to be found near “Hate Mail From Cheerleaders.” Jokes aside, the iTunes store has “The B.S. Report” as its #78 podcast, though those numbers used to be easily gamed.
And though it’s a column that will reprint in ESPN The Magazine, this will no doubt get more hits online than eyeballs in print. (Besides, Simmons writes in both places, too.)
The piece’s dimensions are those of Simmons’ wheelhouse: though he’s not as great or witty a writer as he used to be, he’s obsessed with fantasy sports, in particular fantasy football, while the prevailing perception of Reilly is, almost certainly somewhat wrongly, as a pseudo-troglodyte who wouldn’t know an iPod from the things in Cocoon.
Chatting with maybe America’s biggest name at the moment about fantasy football (which ESPN loves to promote at every turn) is no doubt the juiciest of plum assignments, and I can’t see any rational argument for Reilly to win it over Simmons based on skill set and interest.
So it must be money, and it must be power.
ESPN lured Reilly from Sports Illustrated with more than a fistful of dollars, doling out what was rumored to be an absurd $17 million and turned into $10 million to move “Life of Reilly” from the back page of SI to the back page of The Mag and theoretically use Reilly for on-camera things. Simmons isn’t exactly a pauper, but an excellent roundup of writer salaries at The Big Lead pegs his income as the high six figures, maybe just at $1 million a year, “placing him only behind Reilly at the WWL.”
And, certainly, it’s part perception, something Will Leitch almost omnisciently called in April:
We think it’s more a matter of pulling rank. Some online guy is gonna have Sen. Obama as a guest on his PODCAST? What the hell’s a podcast? Better to wait until Stu Scott can talk to him about Carolina hoops after the convention. Why waste the access on a podcast?
(Okay, so that’s actually pre-convention; still, Will was damn close.)
So for Simmons, it’s a perfect opportunity for him to work his brand of folksy sports populism and get some League of Dorks banter; for Reilly, it’s a high-profile “get” to justify his mammoth take, something ESPN can cite when defending the mostly underwhelming hire. (Remember, Obama and Simmons were game for that podcast; ESPN nixed it.)
While Reilly’s having a grand time talking on Obama’s campaign bus, Simmons has to settle for a fantasy basketball league with dog lover and relentless promoter Matthew Berry and eight Joe Sixpacks/Plumbers. The topic of the latest Simmons podcast was paring through the thousands of pleading, taunting, and bribing entries from hopefuls. (It was interesting.)
Those assignments aren’t just not on the same level; I’m not even sure they exist in the same plane.
Sure, ESPN’s Gary Hoenig can say nice things about Simmons when it doesn’t matter:
“With Rick joining Bill Simmons, our readers will now enjoy the two best sports columnists anywhere.”
But Rick Reilly is a capital-letter Writer, someone whose credibility comes from the brand name he’s been associated with as much as the quality of the work he’s put in. Maybe more importantly, Reilly’s not a blogger. When an opportunity like this arises, Simmons is still just a glorified blogger.
Bloggers don’t get no respect.