Bill Simmons, the People’s Sportswriter

Will Leitch has an excellent column up at Deadspin on Bill Simmons and his rise to bestselling author status. H/T Aaron Gleeman. A sample:

A large part of Simmons’ appeal has always been that sense that you knew him, that somehow you were invested in his success. Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman will sell more books in their lifetime than Simmons, but people don’t wait in lines spanning around the block just to have them sign their book like they do for Simmons. (A search for photos of Simmons brings up hundreds of shots of him posing with fans.) …But it’s what fans have always done with Simmons, even those who purport to hate him. Simmons turned into an indie rock band from the early ’90s. “He’s hanging out with Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon now? SELLOUT!” We treated Simmons like he was a guy from our neighborhood who made it big, like it was important that he remember the little people who got him there. In a way, he kind of was.

Leitch is right, although of course it’s a little hard for me to have the same perspective; Leitch didn’t even read Bill on the Boston Sports Guy site in the pre-2001 era, whereas – as longtime readers will recall – I wrote on the site for over a year. I’ve been reading Bill’s stuff since we were on the college paper together in the early 1990s. While I’ve enjoyed a lot of his writings on, they were nothing new to me, because I knew his writing style so well by then. And given our common background at Holy Cross and how long I’ve known him, Bill basically is a guy from my neighborhood.
Leitch’s larger point, though, is one I’ve made repeatedly over the past decade about writers, politicians, musicians, and the blogosphere in general. There’s no substitute for a conversational tone that draws the reader/listener/viewer in. There’s no substitute for being truly, comfortably yourself – maybe a slightly more eloquent, witty or composed version of yourself, but people can tell when you are talking to them the way you would talk to your friends, and when you are just writing or talking at them. The latter is usually a sign that you are taking yourself too seriously and/or disrespecting your audience. I always personally feel my writing is much stronger – not just my blog writing but my legal writing as well – when it feels more conversational. Bill James was probably the first writer I really and truly absorbed that lesson from – and even to this day, James’ fans are so dedicated to the man’s work not only because of his insights, his wit and wisdom, or his scientific rigor, but because his writing was always a frank conversation where he’d go off on tangents, discuss petty feuds with his adversaries, gripe about what was on the radio, etc. You felt, just from reading the annual Abstracts, like you knew the guy. And Bill Simmons’ writing does the same thing, and thus has generated the same loyalty, especially from people who remember when Simmons, like James, was essentially self-publishing his work and living on a shoestring to do it.
It’s true, as Leitch says, that Bill has faced more backlash as the years have gone by, inevitably due to a combination of his success and ubiquity, people getting tired of his signature style, and the fact that it’s hard for a die-hard Boston fan to keep the same underdog appeal when the Red Sox, Celtics and especially Patriots are rolling up title after title. But that comes with the territory. Bill’s had great success and he’s earned it by being the sportswriter the fans wanted to be.

18 thoughts on “Bill Simmons, the People’s Sportswriter”

  1. Simmons is a Boston homer whose “insights” into the sports he covers are damaged by his overwhelming bias. Anyone who has read the stuff he used to write about Peyton Manning knows how stupid Simmons can be about the game.
    He may have a comfortable writing style for people who share his bias, but for people who don’t root for Boston teams and look for sportswriting that includes a clue about the game, Simmons isn’t worth the time.

  2. Stan must be an Indy or Tennessee fan because Simmons has been dead right about Manning.
    Until the last couple of years, he folded like a tent in the playoffs, made it obvious that he thought the losses were his teammates fault and even threw his line under the bus after the Colts lost to the Steelers in the playoffs.
    Simmons has been complimentary to Manning the past couple of years, especially this year.

  3. Stan, I understand your point but I think you kind of miss THE point. Don’t we all, as fans, have overwhelming biases? Don’t we all, sometimes, come to silly conclusions because we are fans of a particular team or player? Simmons isn’t an analyst. He’s a fan and he writes like one and never really holds himself out to be an analyst. When he does analyze, he does it from the fan perspective and is clear he is doing it that way.

  4. Simmons doesn’t really understand sports, unlike writers such as Neyer, Hollinger, Bill James, or yourself, Crank.
    But unlike hack writers like Rick Reilly, Skip Bayless, or other journalists who write the same tired article over, and over, and over, Simmons is always funny, and he’s always unique. That alone makes him worth reading, even though he barely understands modern statistical analysis.

  5. Magrooder,
    In the 2003 playoffs, Manning’s perfect passer rating vs. a Denver team that had dominated his offensive line a month earlier is probably the 2d best performance by a QB in NFL history. The next week at KC was THE best performance ever by an NFL QB. Obviously, no QB ever played better over a two week stretch.
    If you don’t know what you’re talking about, best to remain silent.

  6. “What happened the next week?”
    His line let the Patriots defense into the backfield with ease. Manning should not have Obama’d his O-line in public, but he was right about them caving in that game.

  7. Trying to plow thru all 700 pages of the Basketball Book. He has master the ability to talk and write about sports without being condescending. Unlike Lupica, Buck, Costas and Francessa to name a few.

  8. The comment he made about the O-line was after a playoff loss to Pittsburgh, not New England. And he didn’t even throw his teammates under the bus:
    “Let�s just say we had some problems in protection.”
    That’s about the mildest way you can put it. The only pronoun he used after the game was “we”. He didn’t blame everyone else. He took the blame as well. The quarterback is responsible for calling out blitzes, too, and his comment shows that.

  9. I think Bill Simmons is an aquired taste I’ve never acquired. I agree with the general point of this post, which is that he retains the common touch of a guy calling WFAN (except from a Boston perspective). But that’s not what I’m looking for. I want somebody who’ll tell me what I don’t alredy know.

  10. I was reading Simmons way back in the AOL and Digital Cities days, and come to think of it, Crank, your posts on the old SG site are how I found you.

  11. Anyone who says Simmons doesn’t know the NBA is clearly off base. He knows the league way better than most columnists and all but the most obsessive fans. I think he also knows baseball pretty well too. He’s clearly not as knowledgeable about the NFL or college sports, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
    Besides, how do you think he compares to other sports columnists? In my opinion, he knows sports better than other “general sports columnists” like Skip Bayless, Rick Reilly, or Jay Mariotti. (Setting the bar low, I know.)
    I’ve been reading him since the BSG days, and I still think what he does is fairly unique. Other writers and blogs capture his tone and approach from time to time but nobody seems to do it in a long form. Of course, his platform on ESPN gives him the freedom to do that, but he did it back on his old website too.

  12. I think Simmons KNOWS the history of sports, especially the NBA, better than almost anybody else.
    What he doesn’t UNDERSTAND is what makes players valuable, or what helps teams win.
    He is obsessed with championships (perhaps understandable from a Celtics fan). He will forever demean players like Karl Malone who didn’t win a ring. The only thing that changed about Peyton Manning is that now the dude has a championship; solely because of that, Simmons is extremely complimentary to him.
    Don’t believe me? Watch A-Rod. Now that he has a title, Simmons will be about 1/10th as critical of A-Rod as he used to be. It’s not that he’s afraid of criticism; it’s that he truly believes that players magically improve on the day they win their first title.

  13. Sorry gents, Manning was AWFUL in the Jan. 04 game vs. New England. Back then, he was great at putting up empty numbers, but sucked in the clutch.
    He redeemed himself, in my view, with his Jan. 07 performance, but he arguably caught a break there when the Patriots pulled a George Allen-Redskins on the Chargers (I still can’t believe the Pats won that game–they got abused), who were by far the best team in the league that season.

  14. Stan,
    You proved my point. Manning just kills weak defense, like those of Denver and KC, building up his individual stats. The next weekend — 23 for47, 237 yards, 1 TD 4 INT.
    The next year, with the Pats playing wide receivers in the secondary, 27-42-238-0-1.
    The guy is CLUTCH!!

  15. Also, Manning prefaced his comment about his offensive line by saying, “I’m trying to be a good teammate here,” which showed that he understood exactly what he was about to do and tried to insulate himself from criticism.

  16. What turned me from being a real Simmons fan in the early going to actively disliking him was the terrible gambling streak he went on a few years back, when he was outpicked by his wife (and about 500,000 ESPN folks) during the NFL season. It was embarrassing to see his inability to just throw up his hands and admit that maybe he sucked at this: each week was a raft of new excuses and finger pointing. He still does this, I’m told. I’d know, but I don’t read him any more.

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