Bill Simmons is alternately the most overrated, underrated and accurately rated sports writer in the world today.
He's overrated because, contrary to what many pieces written after news broke of him parting ways with ESPN said, Simmons hasn't really revolutionized sports journalism or sports writing. There's nothing fundamentally different about the craft or the profession as a direct result of Simmons' existence. Any changes have brought about by the larger forces of digital news, and the move from media scarcity to media abundance. It's worth nothing that in two years of teaching (yes, small sample size), I've yet to have or meet a student that wants to write like Bill Simmons.
He's underrated because it really is hard to remember just how much fun and almost revolutionary his columns felt 10-15 years ago. He's become an institution, at times a self-parody, and so it's easy to forget how much Simmons mattered to a demographic when he was new on the scene. In 2004, when the Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees, his columns were the ones I waited for the next day, because I wanted to see what he had to say.
He's accurately rated because he is exactly what he is: sportswriting's first star of the digital age.
So moving forward, what can we learn from the Simmons-ESPN era? Two lessons - one for news organizations, one for reporters:
For Media Outlets: Experiment
Writing at Sports on Earth, Will Leitch captured the improbability of Simmons' rise, which included a New York Times news alert that he had been fired by ESPN:
ESPN's hiring of Simmons was an experiment - a low-risk one, but an experiment nonetheless. It paid off.
The lesson for news organizations is to be brave enough to experiment themselves. The lesson is not to find someone to be BILL SIMMONS - the pop-culture-reference-spouting-voice-of-the-fan. It's to find new voices, new ways to tell stories, new ways to inform readers. It's to figure out what institutionalized aspects of the profession no longer serve readers interests and to try new things. Maybe it's a voice-of-the-fan column. Maybe it's promoting a talented young writer to columnist rather than making her work 10 years on a beat to "earn it." Maybe it's giving up traditional game stories to focus on analytics.
The point is to experiment. To try new things. To look for a different voice and give it a platform. It served ESPN well the past 15 years.
For Reporters: Be So Good They Can't Ignore You
This is my standard piece of career advice that I give to all my students, because it's so important. You can't control what happens in the media world, but you can be so good at your craft that you can't help but get noticed.
This is what Simmons' did. Again, as Leitch pointed out, he was a blogger in the late 1990s and early 2000s, writing for an AOL fan site while working as a bartender. This was not the fast track to success. And yet Simmons was so good at what he did, ESPN noticed and gave him a chance.
You don't have to be a fan of what Simmons does, but he does him very well. He was so good that ESPN couldn't ignore him.
That's the lesson for reporters - young and old. The lesson isn't to write long columns from a fan's perspective laden with pop-culture references. The lesson isn't to be the next Bill Simmons. The world doesn't need another Bill Simmons. But it does need reporting to be done, stories to be told, statistics to be analyzed, voices to be heard.
The lesson of Bill Simmons is simple: Be so good they can't ignore you.