Maybe you remember an old Sirius XM radio advertisement. The spot highlighted the men who changed music (Elvis Presley), comedy (Richard Pryor), sports (Michael Jordan) and radio (Howard Stern).
If and when the title is bestowed upon a sportswriter, it will no doubt be former ESPN.com’s “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons. As the daily newspaper sports section diminishes; finding a new home on the world wide web, perhaps no one personifies this revolution better than Simmons.
In other words, Bill Simmons is the rock star of rock stars in the sports media world. Therefore, making him Elvis Presley. The many coincidences are striking; and go well beyond a shared love for the city of Las Vegas. As Bill Simmons parts ways with ESPN to begin the next chapter, let’s look at how he got here.
More importantly, let’s look at how he revolutionized the game.
1. Technological developments in Media perfectly coincided their career arc.
That newfangled invention called television made Elvis Presley a star. His photogenic traits and sex appeal to straight women and gay men made him perfect for the boob tube. He was exceedingly lucky that the small screen began getting mass consumed at about the same time his career took off. Likewise, Simmons found the internet at a time when almost everyone had “suspicious minds” about it. In 1997, people were more likely to buy a Hootie and the Blowfish album than publish their own website.
However, Simmons got in on the ground floor when he began Boston Sports Guy.com, a small site that within a couple years grew to 9,000 hits a day. Then in 2001, ESPN.com came calling.
In Elvis’ later years, he would literally shoot his own televisions for amusement. This is relevant because it will be interesting to see what Bill Simmons does to his laptops late in life.
2. Breaking all the conventional rules
As the New York Times article says, Simmons’ book is 700 pages. So it’s approximately 1,768, 876, 890, 543,876, 765, 456 words long, or thereabouts. His internet columns FREQUENTLY run over 25,000 words an entry. For comparison sake, a piece of fiction writing can be considered a novel at 50,000 words. Sports guy also references his family and friends (J. Bug, House anyone?) and never even attempted to hide any bias for the teams he loves. Pretty much the complete opposite of what is taught in j school. And these dissident practices are nothing compared to Presley’s music which featured riffs, lyrics, subject matter and tempo changes that were very anti-establishment in rock n roll. Itself, a form of expression built on raging against the machine.
3. From Garden Apartment to the Penthouse
I’ve seen both Graceland in Memphis and the small one room Tupelo, MS shack Elvis Presely was born in. All Americans are familiar with his rags to riches to prescription pills and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches story. Simmons wasn’t exactly born “in the ghetto,” but he did come from a broken home that was middle-class, and certainly anything of privilege. During his 20s he found himself tending bar to make ends meet. Today, his salary is at a level that less than .00001% of sports media professionals could dream of seeing.
His autobiographical Horatio Alger story is detailed in the introduction of his first book, “Now I can Die in Peace”, but there’s one key glaring omission. He started his own site, it took off, and then ESPN came calling to sign him. But where/how he did make the connection to the mothership?
You can be good, and you can build a cult following yourself, but no one makes the jump from the grassroots to the big national stage without having someone on the inside lobbying for them…so where/who/what/when/why/how?
4. They both got in touch with their inner African-American
When you take the audio tour of Graceland, you get to hear Lisa Marie Presley say of her father, “I would frequently hear him coming from two rooms away because all his jewelry would jingle.” Elvis was “icy” with his “bling-bling” long before Nelly and P. Diddy were even born. And the black influence on his music is obvious and well-documented.
As for Simmons, in his own words on page 8 of the Book of Basketball.
“That spawned my racial identity crisis in the first grade (fully described in my Red Sox book) when I gave myself the Muslim name Jabaal-Abdul Simmons. I didn’t know any better. I wanted to play for the Celtics and most NBA players were black. Besides I had a lot more in common with them- my favorite sport was black, my favorite player (Charlie Scott) was black, my favorite comedians (Jimmie Walker, Red Foxx, and Flip Wilson) were black, most of my favorite tv shows (Sanford and Son, the Jeffersons, Good Times, the Mod Squad) starred blacks, and I even made my mother take me to Roxbury in 1975 to see Keith Wilkes’ one and only movie Earl, Cornbread and Me.
It pissed me off that I was white.”
And it’s fitting because as Simmons put it once during a New York Times interview
“Race is ingrained in everything that’s happened through N.B.A. history.”
I can relate to that; as does every white suburban middle class kid who entered his teens and tweens between 1987 and 1995. We all wanted to be black, and since the early ’90s, black American has set the tone on what’s cool for young america. And obviously, young america sets the tone for what’s cool in America.
This is documented and spotlighted in the ESPN 30 for 30 “I hate Christian Laettner.” Given how much influence Simmons had with the 30 for 30 series it’s just another example of the impact Bill Simmons has had on sports media.
5. Influence has spawned armies of imitators
I’m sure you’re aware that tons of people make their living in this world as “Elvis Presley impersonators.” Can any other musician claim that?
No, not even the Beatles.
Unless you count the ’90s Britpop band Oasis. And you don’t need to visit Sons of Bill Simmons.com to learn about the millions of imitators Sports Guy has inspired.
Attending Sports Journalism Summitt II at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL, I came up with a drinking game. I told the other students/attendees to keep a tally the next day of every time one of our instructors/presenters says:
“I know you all want to be Bill Simmons, “let’s get our Bill Simmons moment out of the way for this session,” “that was very Sports Guyesque” etc. It was quite easy to get drunk with those parameters in place.
Paul M. Banks owns, operates and writes The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with Fox Sports Digital. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, currently contributes to the Chicago Tribune RedEye edition. He also appears regularly on numerous sports talk radio stations all across the country.Powered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks