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How Bill Simmons’ innovative style led to his rise – and fall – at ESPN

Bill Simmons was at the forefront of reshaping sports media in the 21st century. cmg digital

With last week’s news of Bill Simmons’ impending departure from ESPN, it’s appropriate to look at how he spearheaded a revolutionary era in sports media.

When Simmons arrived at ESPN in 2001 after working as a sports writer for AOL’s Boston page, the sports media landscape looked quite similar to the one that had existed during the prior two decades. Mass media outlets in print, television and radio dominated sports opinion and news. The internet was seen as little more than a junior partner in that relationship.

But today’s sports media is almost irreconcilable with the earlier era – which helps explain his departure. During his tenure at ESPN, while Simmons played a key role in that transformation, his outsider mentality and influential voice made an ongoing relationship with a media giant like ESPN difficult to maintain.

A changing landscape

Today, individual teams and leagues assume many media functions sportswriters once commanded, offering coverage and analysis of teams and players via their respective websites.

Prominent owners such as the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban have even stated that providing access to outlets such as is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Cuban cited his team’s ability to provide necessary facts and figures, and claimed that online media’s desire for web traffic lends itself to sensationalism.

Meanwhile, athlete-focused media ventures such as the Players’ Tribune, have emerged in the past few years. The site has promised players the ability to provide “unfiltered” stories directly to their fans, without relying on sports media members.

Thus with sports entities growing more protective of their brands, many of the traditional media outlets have struggled with issues of access and commentary.

And as University of Georgia journalism professor Welch Suggs has argued, legitimacy in sports journalism is often directly tied to whether or not sport organizations are willing to grant access to the journalists who cover them.

Not surprisingly, the lines between team and league-driven PR and true journalistic inquiry have become increasingly blurred. These are lines that ESPN itself has struggled to define, with the business, entertainment and journalism wings of the company often in conflict.

Simmons brings a different approach

In many ways, Simmons altered the traditional sports writing model, bringing the questions and debates of living rooms, bars and dormitories to the computer screen. His work on Page 2 at ESPN in the early 2000s first demonstrated a fresh style that could be both effective and popular.

Balancing sports insights with pop culture references, his opinion writing was distinctive and entertaining. His fan-centric approach to columns personalized sports writing for the average reader.

While many traditional columnists often seemed to be talking down to the sports fan – or, in the words of Deadspin’s Drew Magary, “didn’t even seem to enjoy sports” – Simmons has always seemed to be talking with the sports fan, whether it was through his popular mailbag, or columns on topics ranging from running diaries of the NBA draft to evaluating relative levels of agony for fans of teams that lose key games.

While Simmons is not a traditional journalist, his use of columns, podcasts and – more recently – video has been highly influential. Much of sports commentary has evolved to match the model that Simmons popularized, blending established fact with opinion, speculation and intuition.

Simmons also seamlessly adapted to social media. His utilization of Twitter, podcasts and internet-hosted video helped to popularize those outlets for sportswriters. With nearly 4 million followers on Twitter, he formulated an unique personality-driven brand, a means to reach fans and offer opinions outside the traditional supervised environment.

Meanwhile, his concept of topical sports documentaries integrated fresh voices and unique commentary into an ESPN television strategy that had become stale.

Simmons’s crowning achievement at ESPN was his creation and stewardship of Grantland. The site has demonstrated that a mix of sports, pop culture, blogging, longform writing, video and podcasting can survive and thrive in the social media era. It’s a platform that suits the sensibilities of sports consumers who didn’t grow up relying solely on the newspaper for their daily sports knowledge.

What’s next?

Some have suggested that Simmons’s departure from ESPN stems from his scathing comments about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. If so, it serves as a fitting endnote to the relationship: Simmons staked out the position of outsider even before he arrived at ESPN.

His recent criticisms matched a growing public discontent with the actions of both the commissioner and the league, and were notable in comparison to the general lack of criticism of Goodell in NFL media circles – ESPN included. (As fans of the defunct ESPN series Playmakers know, Simmons is not the first casualty of the network’s sensitivity to the NFL’s opinions and desires.)

It’s possible that Simmons will find he needs the marketing power of ESPN far more than ESPN needs Simmons. Many of his ventures have developed dedicated audiences and drawn critical praise, but do not generate the same level of revenue that ESPN content with broader appeal brings in.

So moving to a new venue – particularly one out of the mainstream – doesn’t guarantee the same level of popularity or success.

But it would be foolish to underestimate Simmons’s ability to channel his demonstrated drive, work ethic, and willingness to try new and innovative methods of content creation.

Wherever he ends up, he’ll likely build on his unique accomplishments over the past fourteen years.

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