Sportswriter Bill Simmons Profiled at Length in the New York Times

Some of you out there enjoy sports, and you read‘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.

Here’s more:

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)

  • Matt Svoboda

    Simmons and Reilly, IMHO, are easily the best sports’ writers around. Yet, like you pointed out, neither are Christians and sometimes both can be quite racy.

    Thank you for this article and sober-reminder of how Simmons’ approach correlates with our ministries.

    • Andrew Wolgemuth

      I’ll take Joe Posnanski over either Simmons or Reilly – I think he’s the best pure writer of the three, and he isn’t crude or foul.

      Great thoughts on Simmons, Owen. He’s an interesting guy…and generally quite the read.

      • owenstrachan

        Good thoughts, guys. I like Reilly, Matt. Don’t love him. Have been reading him all my life, since he was the back page of SI. He has some great stuff and then ehhh stuff.

        Andrew, I haven’t read much JP but some buddies swear by him. Need to read more of him. Simmons is an interesting guy. Very funny.

  • Ryan Taylor


    I’ve read Bill Simmons since I was in college, and as you said, you do have to take him with a grain of salt. At the same time, you’re right. Bill connects with his fans because he openly admits that he is a Boston fan. When I watch ESPN and ABCc broadcasts, I cannot stand to listen to Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson. Could three guys be more biased in their reporting and yet pretend like they are neutral commentators? For instance, Breen is an obvious Knicks fan, he hates all things Boston, and always seems to become excited when a “mega-athlete” excels (Example: Breen’s constant over enthusiasm for Kobe Bryant.). He was obviously pulling for LeBron James this year. I hate when he acts like he doesn’t have an opinion and that the NBA has zero flaws. At least Bill Simmons doesn’t do this type of hypocritical reporting. We know where he stands.

    I like that you point out that Christians in an authoritative role should be more entrepreneurially. I think on some levels we are seeing the disconnect, or demi-god as you put it, Christian in authority structure break down.

    Becoming a fan of your blog, man.


  • Barnabas

    Mark Jackson was a better pass first point guard that Travis best by any measure.
    Joe Posnanski is an infinitely better writer than Rick Reilly.
    I love that you, Owen, are seeing redemptive qualities and lessons in the genius of a guy like Simmons (who is one of my favorites). It’s a blessing for you to share this balance and perspective.

  • owenstrachan

    Ryan, I hear you. Breen is doing exactly what the NBA hype/promo/global brand/money-making machine instructs him to do: maximize stars, minimize the rest. Boil it all down to a quintessential athlete (or two or three or four). Sell tons of jerseys and other paraphernalia. Brush, rinse, repeat. The cycle goes on. And–the color guy needs to come up with several inane catchphrases that he can repeat every time there’s a commercial (currently 97 times per NBA game, I think).

    Basketball is a beautiful game, much more beautiful than the commercialized NBA shows. But that’s life in a fallen world. You put up with the bad (where you can) to reap the good. I think you’re right about BS wearing his loyalty on his sleeve. That’s a big part of his appeal and I didn’t mention that. Whether you love or hate him, you know that he’s not pretending to love everyone and be “neutral” (no one is). Writers who idolize the guys they write about–like Mike Wilbon, for example–should have to wear cheerleading outfits on tv.

    I have to disagree about JVG. He takes stances, calls players out, lets us know when coaches have no semblance of a clue what is going on (this is generally happening about 70% of the time), and doesn’t shy away from saying hard words.

    Barnabas, you’re right. He was. But I liked Best better. Hated Jackson’s game. He’s a good guy. Again, I’ll take that as a call to read more JP. Thanks for your encouragement. I really do like Simmons and honestly learn from him. He’s a sinner just like us, though, and that comes through. We should pray for him.

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  • Patrick Schreiner

    I myself follow all three of the guys mentioned above (Joe Pa, Rilley, Simmons) but I have found myself reading less and less of Joe Pa because his articles are sometimes too long. Reilly is fun because he is always so short. I think Joe Pa has better sports IQ and more substantial things to say, but actually I think Reilly is a better writer.