While a certain blog is waging war against ESPN’s PR department, the Worldwide Leader’s online franchise is giving interviews about The Book of Basketball, and other things.
And — surprise! — Bill Simmons is hinting at leaving ESPN again.
JP: As of right now, you’re a columnist, author, podcaster and now, as one of the executive producer’s of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, in the TV biz. Are there any other media outlets you plan on taking on soon?
BS: You mean, besides porn? I don’t know. I always wanted to create a TV series. I thought I pulled it off with something I wrote in 2007 for HBO, only they killed it, and right after they killed it, everyone who killed it got fired for being bad at their job. So does this mean I can’t create a TV series, or does this mean I had horribly bad luck pitching it to the wrong people? I don’t know. This is the stuff I need to figure out as I sketch out the next five years of my life. Part of me can’t shake the temptation of being the underdog again — like, launching my own sports site, hiring some talented writers and designers and trying to compete with the big guns. Like what Frank Deford did with the National. All right, the National lost $100 million. Bad example.
But I could see doing something crazy like that. I like taking chances, I am not afraid to fail, and beyond that, I am not afraid to fail violently and miserably. So anything is possible. A really good prediction would be, “Simmons is going to fail violently and miserably with a super-ambitious idea within the next five years.” Lock it down.
A couple points:
1) Had anyone heard of the failed TV series with HBO before? Simmons mentioned it to Alain Sepinwall earlier this month, but it doesn’t show up on Google, isn’t on Simmons’ ridiculously well-kept Wikipedia page, and hasn’t been blabbed about on podcasts, to my knowledge. (And I’ve been listening.) While it certainly seems odd that the Sports Guy who has all the tools of ESPN at his disposal if he wants to create TV, Simmons’ HBO yen is something I’ll revisit later.
2) “Simmons is going to fail violently and miserably with a super-ambitious idea within the next five years” is a fun one-liner to throw back at him if something fails. But what if Simmons leaves ESPN and tries to start a large sports site?
He’s mentioned that his deal is up next year, and though he’s got a ton of time, effort, and prestige invested in the 30 for 30 documentary series, it can’t even beat poker in the ratings with a ton of promotion. (Worth noting: That airing was competing with live baseball. But that’s a rather paltry rating.) Why couldn’t Simmons take his enormous Twitter following, six times the size of ESPN’s flock, his inside joke-filled, guest-heavy, and very popular podcast, and a generous helping of his columns to an independent site?
But if he did, it would probably be different.
JP: Your first book was a collection of columns (with enough footnotes to pacify even the most hardcore David Foster Wallace fans). This is your first book of primarily new material. What made this the right time to write this book?
BS: Well, it’s about 75-80% new stuff and 20-25% stuff you have seen in some form. With more dick jokes. And I get to drop some F-bombs and make fun of announcers. And there are even more footnotes than I had in the last book; they work even better this time around. You get Network Simmons on ESPN.com; this is HBO Simmons except you don’t get subjected to a gratuitous shot of my ass. Anyway, this was the right time for me as a writer more than anything. Writing is like playing golf – you have to keep working at your swing. I had been in a slight rut with the same deadlines on the same days for a little too long, and on top of that, I was constantly battling with ESPN over content in my columns. So the book was a liberating experience for me: no deadlines, no restrictions, nothing. It made me remember why I liked writing so much. At the very least, you will read this book and think, “That dude enjoyed working on this thing.”
The idea of network Simmons vs. HBO Simmons (which, considering ESPN is a cable channel, is an odd metaphor) is something that will probably fascinate his fans. I know firsthand how Simmons working blue can draw a crowd; I would imagine he would get a certain amount of shock value in going from buttoned-up ESPN to free-wheeling independence, not unlike Howard Stern’s transition from terrestrial to satellite radio.
The difference is that Simmons would be moving from one arena he knows on the Internet to one he probably would have no problem dwelling in and drawing an audience to, whereas Stern was and is prohibitively expensive and foreign.
For Simmons, at this point in his career, an audience is the raison d’etre. You can tell in his discussion of blogs and their worth.
JP: You’ve talked about your struggles as a young, aspiring sportswriter and how entrenched veterans among other issues made it impossible for younger writers to make their mark. If you had started 10 years later, with the newspaper industry in the state it is in today, how do you think your career would have been different?
BS: I graduated college in 1992 and didn’t reach a sizable audience with my column for nine solid years. If I had started ten years later, or ten years sooner, everything could have happened sooner obviously. But if I had started fifteen years later? I don’t know. Younger writers gravitate towards blogging and I’m not sure that would have necessarily been a good thing for me. You don’t have to work at building an audience because, really, you can get a wad of traffic from established blogs right away with just one post. You’re training yourself to think in shorter, more immediate bursts into putting real thought into what you want to say. And you’re reading other bloggers constantly, which isn’t necessarily the best way to get better as a writer.
When I was younger, I was something of a journalism/book/short story junkie and read every conceivable type of writer. I had hundreds and hundreds of books; I had every issue of Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports since 1974; I had two decades of clippings from GQ, Esquire, The National, New Yorker and other places saved in manila folders. Now, if there had been an internet back then … would I have done all that? Probably not. I would have been surfing the ‘net all day like everyone else.
And again, it’s dangerous to have the ability to get an audience instantly. I started my old web site in 1997, when there wasn’t the quid pro quo system of “I’ll link to you if you link to me.” I needed to bring readers to my site every day — knowing that I wasn’t getting traffic from other places — and the only way that was happening was if I pushed the envelope and wrote angles that I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. That constant fear of “I need people to keep coming back!” made me better in the end. So I was lucky and unlucky, if that makes sense. Remember, I gave up on writing in 1996 and nearly again in 2000 because I was so freaking frustrated, I wanted to strangle somebody. That can’t be a good career path.
Simmons here confuses infusions of traffic with an audience, and “surfing the ‘net” and “reading other bloggers” with closely reading people who can write, and well.
The “quid pro quo” architecture of the blogosphere does far less for the little guy who gets a passel of hits than it does for the big guys who can take those stories as their own with a simple link. It’s not like that doesn’t require pushing the envelope, either: The outstanding stuff gets caught up in the link economy, too.
And for Simmons, who considers blogging something that doesn’t require “real thought,” it’s no stunner that reading other bloggers seems like a waste of time. But Simmons surely read Fire Joe Morgan: He had Michael Schur/Ken Tremendous on his podcast. That was really good writing, attacking really sloppy and reductionist writing from the mainstream. “The cream of the crop of the blogosphere,” as Josh Elliott is fond of saying when introducing “Blog Buzz” on SportsCenter, is no more or less poorly crafted than many of the columns put out by Joe Sportswriter for any of many national or regional publications.
I know this because I read it. I consume lots of thought on sports — from blogs, newspapers, television, and sometimes radio — and I think I know enough to know what is worth reading and what isn’t worth a click.
The average young writer isn’t doing that, I would guess, partly because it takes some skill to find all the things you want to read because the supposed “audiences” for all these talented or untalented bloggers don’t really exist and partly because it’s far easier to read Simmons’ trendy, youth-focused, analysis-light and joke-riddled writing on ESPN.com or via his Twitter and assume that’s the gold standard of sportswriting. It’s not.
If Simmons were truly worried about the future of journalism and the fate of young writers, he might say something constructive and useful, rather than nebulously asserting that having tons of books and magazines makes you anything more than Ron Burgundy with an ESPN hat on.
That said, he will concede that he, like every other writer who has ever written something on the Internet, dealt with legitimacy issues before good writers made the transition from the print medium to the ether.
JP: You once said that one of the biggest things that happened to you was (Hall-of-Fame sportswriter) Peter Gammons starting to write for ESPN.com, because in essence it gave credibility to people whose writing appeared online. Do you feel completely validated, or is there a part of you that wishes you’d had a chance for a newspaper career?
BS: Totally. Before Gammons, when I told people that I wrote sports columns on the internet, they’d look at me like I had just told them, “I trade vintage porno VHS tapes.” Gammons made people over forty like my dad — people who didn’t understand hyperlinks or any of that crap — to say, “Wait, GAMMONS is online? Maybe I need to figure out this internet thing.”
Anyway, I didn’t accomplish one dream (writing a column for the Globe) but realized another (succeeding with a national sports column that ran 2-3 times a week, which nobody had ever done before). So I think those two things cancel each other out. I am semi-validated. Yes, I always wanted to write a column for the Globe. But if you flip it around, really, I wanted a column there because the Globe had the most readers. It had nothing to do with the Globe itself. For the last eight-plus years, I’ve been writing a sports column for the sports web site that has the most readers. Same dream, just realized a little differently.
(Note: All of this is total bullshit. I am still pissed that I never wrote a column for the Globe while newspapers were alive. Now it’s too late. Fuck. Thanks for bringing this up.)
That desire for readers was satiated with a widely-read national column for the biggest media company in sports, and that pinnacle reached gave Simmons reason to do the same old mailbags and tired picks columns. The logic: If people read them, why not give the people what they want? (The logical comeback: Because the people are an army of dittoheads to rival Rush Limbaugh?)
But there’s something in the back of Simmons’ head that tells him to keep chasing the dream of a Boston Globe column, no doubt. It was his childhood paper; it is probably one of the first things he reads daily. It may be the byline he covets most. Why wouldn’t Simmons at least investigate the possibility of building a robust national online presence for the Globe and getting a column in the print edition?
Or, even better: Why not create a hybrid online/print presence that trades on Simmons’ name, recruits talented people who know both the Internet and writing, and tries to compete with the best of the Internet and the best of magazines? That would satisfy the “super-ambitious idea within the next five years” Simmons yammered about, would fill his need to do HBO Simmons rather than network Simmons, and would probably be more compelling than anything Simmons is currently doing at ESPN.
Simmons’ future is something the blogosphere will examine incessantly as details are revealed, and rightly so. This interview — one of the better ones he’s ever done and well worth reading — is just the beginning of an arc that I think will end either in Simmons failing “violently and miserably” or succeeding in a staggering way.
If Simmons is going to leave his middle ground, he won’t be heading to another one.