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What ESPN’s Bill Simmons Superdeluxe Media Empire Means for Facts, Fans and Sports
Posted on Jul 7, 2010
By Mark Heisler
Of course, it’s still just a sports debate. Anyone who can’t tell that Bryant and James are the NBA’s best players and two of its best ever isn’t worth arguing with, but, as they say of government work and rock ’n’ roll, “It’s close enough for sports writing.”
What’s scary is how much our politics resemble sports as the audience divides into smaller and more irreconcilable niches, like opposing teams, rather than parts of a larger entity with shared purpose.
Between data points—elections in politics, championships in sports—there’s no capacity to agree on anything. Perception is shaped by the available numbers, even if they’re only snapshots in time with arguable long-term significance—polls in politics, regular-season games in sports.
Compromise, the goal in politics, is the open ground in a crossfire, featuring pundits/hams like Glenn Beck, the former “Wacky Morning Zoo DJ,” and Keith Olbermann, the former ESPN anchor.
As George Will noted of Beck, “It’s the hour of the entertainer.” Unfortunately, with structural changes in media as well as disagreement on issues turning the conversation into a howling din, it may last longer than an hour.
As in sports, the mistake now is taking our political process seriously, as pundits level the same old charges of “losing control of the message” or “breaking promises,” as if the partisan rift hasn’t widened until we have government by super-majority, in the rare times we have super-majorities, and messages aren’t DOA.
The sports blogging revolution suggests how breathtaking the pace of change is.
If bloggers have overrun the palace, one of the landmarks was ESPN’s 2002 hiring of Bill Simmons, an underground icon in the Dodge-City-on-a-Saturday-night world of Boston sports blogs.
Mainstream writers hated the word blog from the moment they learned it stood for “web log”—whatever that meant—before they were told they too would have to do it.
Unfortunately, the traditionalists, represented by Buzz Bissinger, who won a Pulitzer for his painstakingly researched “Friday Night Lights,” tipped off the possibility there was more on their minds than trampled standards—like encroaching age and irrelevance—in a 2008 panel discussion.
Showing who had the bad manners, Bissinger told Deadspin editor Will Leitch, “I really think you’re full of shit,” then, preparing to read a post by “Big Daddy Balls,” sputtered, “Here’s insight in blogging, because it ... REALLY ... PISSES ... THE ... SHIT ... OUT ... OF ... ME!”
If the traditionalists missed it, there is no battle going on for pre-eminence.
It’s strictly generational, with the young seeking spokesmen of their own with standards of their own, or no standards.
Not that it’s a new phenomenon. In the decades since my youth faded as Jefferson Airplane broke up and tattoos became fashion accessories, I’ve thought of it as Payback for Elvis.
In a sign of the times, Rick Reilly, the most gifted sports writer of his generation, whom ESPN hired away from Sports Illustrated with a $17 million five-year deal, now bobs in the wake of Simmons, who sits in the stands and rarely meets the people he writes about, much less interviews any of them.
Suggesting Simmons’ hard-dollar value to ESPN is in the millions, Deadspin noted that his column averaged 1.4 million page views and 460,000 unique visitors monthly with 2 million downloads for his podcast and 1.2 million Twitter followers.
If Simmons is actually an essayist writing about sports, it doesn’t disqualify him from being taken seriously, like Roger Angell.
Simmons can’t be taken seriously because he isn’t serious, only occasionally acknowledging his bold pronouncements that turn out wrong or, as is often the case, embarrassing, in a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of his mood swings from trash-talking jubilation to nothing-to-live-for despair.
With stardom comes the added inconvenience of becoming what he made his reputation savaging. A hero to the editors of Deadspin, once similarly locked out of shrinking, hiring-frozen traditional journalism, Simmons is now part of the ESPN empire, the site covered with BS-style irreverence.
When Simmons indulges himself in what editor A.J. Daulerio, Leitch’s successor, calls “his incessant whining about ESPN’s management of him,” down he goes.
“He was mind-blowing for a lot of people who were not accustomed to being able to write that way on such a large platform,” says Daulerio. “I think he really gave a voice to a lot of people who never could have been a columnist for a daily newspaper if they played by the traditional rules. ...
“We’ve busted on him a lot. That’s the perspective he’s trying to come to terms with, that he’s no longer the underdog. He’s arguably the most popular sports columnist in America. ...
“Will [Leitch] kind of suffered through the same thing. It’s almost like you feel you’re going to kill your idols a lot of the time when you criticize him, but he’s just like anybody else. ...
“There are going to be certain things we criticize but there’s always a level of respect there because most of us who do this know that our jobs wouldn’t be possible without him [Simmons].”
The NBA Finals featured a rare interface with Simmons coming out of the stands and joining the press corps for the matchup between his beloved Celtics and the hated Lakers.
Actually, despite his protestations of devotion, Simmons has never believed in this renaissance, abandoning the Celtics at every turn, as when he lampooned Coach Doc Rivers in the 2008 second-round series against Cleveland (“DOC: All right, guys, listen up. I want to go over the game plan so we’re clear on everything. RAY ALLEN: We have a game plan tonight?”)
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