Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bill Simmons

I was talking to my good friend Edmund about ESPN's firing of Bill Simmons, which I was not on top of. Edmund was, and sent me this link:

Inside the Shocking, Abrupt Divorce of Bill Simmons and ESPN

What strikes me is this:

ESPN will still own intellectual properties like Grantland and the wildly popular podcast, the B.S. Report.

​As big as Simmons was, and undoubtedly will be - let me put this in the manner of James Franco's fantastic character in Spring Breakers -

He didn't own his shee-it! He D-I-D-N-'T O-W-N his shee-it!

It really makes me think. Simmons, albeit somewhat full of himself, is very talented, and Grantland is a great website. But now Grantland isn't his anymore, and if he started a new, similar website that he does own, he would still be in competition with the sweat he expended in making Grantland what it is. That would have to hurt.

This is the new frontier for talent, especially because of the aggressive middlemen (Mark Zuckerberg, for example) in today's media climate: You've got to own your own material. I'll bet Simmons is KICKING himself now. 

The opposite approach is well-evidenced by thriller writer J.A. Konrath, the King of Self-Publication, who is passionate on this subject. Konrath has benefited greatly by maintaining complete control over his creative output. He is not as rich as Stephen King (who is?), but he does damn well.

Like Konrath, Simmons started in a small-guy-self-promoting vein, with his website back in the late Nineties. But it wasn't too long before he got swept up in Big Media, where he retained his persona but ultimately not his control, as last week's firing underlines. 

Could Simmons have been big without ESPN? As big, probably not. But somewhat big, yes, certainly.

The thing is, though, that to a particular type of sports-and-pop-culture junkie like Simmons, the lure of the "big time" is irresistible. Catch this episode of The B.S. Report conducted at SXSW in Austin, with Jimmy Kimmel as the guest:

That is SO celebrity "inside baseball," calculated to make the viewer feel that he is hanging out with famous guys who hang out with other famous guys. It reminds me of Richard Schickel's acute perception in his book Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, that one of the chief perks of fame is access to other famous people.

For Simmons, that access is like oxygen. Of course, he'll still have it. I'm sure he'll find his way, but getting embarrassed publicly by ESPN has to be counted as a major setback.

I don't mean to rip on the podcast, exactly. It's diverting, and Jimmy Kimmel is by far my favorite of the current crop of television late-night hosts.

But the podcast does model the world-view that Simmons and Kimmel and indeed ESPN share, which is well summed-up in the title of James Andrew Miller's and Tom Shales' history of ESPN: These Guys Have All the Fun.

This world-view isn't as loose and free as it looks. It is very strict, in fact, about which subjects are on the table and which are off. You can talk about Britney Spears and The Bachelor and even some talent agent that most in the audience have never heard of, as long as he vaguely brings Jeremy Piven in Entourage to mind. You don't talk about Thomas Piketty or Michael Tilson Thomas or who won the Pritzker Prize. That's not stuff that a "guy guy" thinks about.

This restrictiveness, and the sycophancy about fame (it can't be considered anything else), are pretty oppressive when you come right down to it, and that's why I have to have somewhat conflicted feelings about figures like Bill Simmons (or Kimmel or Jim Rome, whom I like better than Simmons).

More on the Simmons / ESPN break-up here:

ESPN Is Splitting with Bill Simmons

This Deadspin piece from last September lays out the build-up to what has now happened. The comments are interesting too:

The Sports Guy vs. ESPN: How Bill Simmons Lost Bristol

The usual book links:

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN

Now I Can Die in Peace: How The Sports Guy Found Salvation Thanks to the World Champion (Twice!) Red Sox

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