Some of you out there enjoy sports, and you read Grantland.com‘s Bill Simmons. Simmons is not a Christian writer; his material can be racy, even gross. If you enjoy thoughtful sportswriting, however, he is tough to beat. I read him with discretion.
The New York Times recently published a lengthy magazine piece entitled “Can Bill Simmons Win the Big One?” by Jonathan Mahler on Simmons, whose rise has been meteoric in recent years. It covers interesting ground on such topics as the distinction between fans and sportswriters. Here’s a bit:
Simmons is the most prominent sportswriter in America. He’s also a Boston fan. During his early years as a columnist in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was sustained by the angst of backing losers, above all, the Red Sox. More recently, with Boston’s various sports franchises prospering, he has sought poetic inspiration in the teams he hates, and, with the exception of the Yankees, he hates no team more than the Lakers.
For Simmons, this distinction — between fan and columnist — doesn’t really exist. Unlike many sportswriters, for whom detachment is a point of professional pride, Simmons makes no pretense of neutrality. This is at least one explanation for his extraordinary popularity. According to ComScore, Simmons’s “Sports Guy” Web column, which he publishes every 10 days or so, attracted 740,000 unique visitors in April, making him probably the most widely read sportswriter in America today. The column is just one of several media through which Simmons connects with his fans. He has written two best-selling books, the first a memoir of Red Sox fandom, the second a popular history of the N.B.A. His regular podcasts, “The B.S. Report,” are downloaded an average of 600,000 times each.Later this month, Simmons will take another step in the ongoing expansion of his empire, starting his own Web site, in conjunction with ESPN, called Grantland. Simmons says Grantland will be to ESPN what Miramax was to Disney, a boutique division with more room for creativity. Another metaphor might be Martha Stewart Living, a magazine similarly constructed around a single person’s market-tested sensibility. Much has been made of some of the well-known, literary writers Simmons has already attracted to Grantland, but as a business proposition, the site is basically an attempt to leverage Simmons’s take on sports and, really, life into something much bigger than himself.
These trends in media are fascinating to watch. We’ve observed this past year as Oprah Winfrey started her own television network, not show or even channel. Martha Stewart Omnimedia is a sort of media galaxy unto itself. Never before has a sportswriter attempted to build a branded site in quite the way Simmons is. He’s essentially got his own online sports magazine, with a booming podcast, writing team, and other features to boot. Will this venture succeed? Will it fail? We’ll see.
Sportswriters are generally a tribe unto themselves. They enter the business because, well, they like sports. They like writing, of course, and they can get close to athletes and enjoy the action. But sportswriters are not generally the most entrepreneurial type. Simmons is part of the new media breed. He’s building his own brand rather than residing under the ESPN umbrella. It’s fascinating to watch this shift in sportswriting platform, and it will have implications.
Perhaps we evangelicals can learn something by the way Simmons connects with his audience. He’s a real guy, he wears his passions on his sleeve, and he interacts with his readers like they actually matter. He doesn’t write or lead (in his way) from an athletic Mount Olympus; he seems like a friend you might have as a sports fan, albeit the highly intelligent, uncouth, emotional fan who will burst a blood vessel arguing whether Mark Jackson or Travis Best was a better pass-first point guard.
There’s something about Simmons’s approach for us to consider, I think. Those who are in ministry, who are leaders in some way, are not unapproachable demi-gods. We’re very normal people. We should work hard to connect with the people we lead and seek to reach for the glory of Christ. We can work entrepreneurially for the advancement of the kingdom–a fun subject for another day–but we should always do so with people, real people, in mind, not our own glory.
(Image: Dewey Nicks for the NYT)