The boy-king of sports and pop culture chat is now an older man who has run out of ideas …and apparently wardrobe and set options.
Update: HBO announced Friday, Nov. 4 that the last episode of the show, “Any Given Wednesday,” would be broadcast next week, just four and a half months after its debut. The show had poor ratings, often struggling to attract HBO’s baseline 200,000 viewers. The Oct. 26 episode, opposite Game 2 of the World Series, delivered fewer than 85,000 viewers.
Like all men of a certain age who spent years toiling at wilting brick-and-mortar media companies doing all their best work on email chains between buddies with grandiose aspirations, I have a healthy amount of professional respect/jealousy when it comes to Bill Simmons.
He was the Chosen One of white guy sports blab media. Rather, he just figured out how to get to a platform first.
Back when you still got CDs from them in the mail, Simmons was picked up by AOL to moderate his own sports commentary site/chatroom thing as the “Boston Sports Guy.” It was before anyone knew what analytics or keywords or building an audience was. Social media was watching the local weather with your grandpa before Wheel of Fortune and there was no such word as “monetization” (technically, there still is no such word — though that doesn’t stop assholes from using it.)
In the halcyon moment of the internet — the computer age equivalent of Saturday morning when dad was out sneaking a smoke in carport waiting for you get your act together and put your little league uni on (you were taking so long because you could only find one cleat btw) — Simmons set the tone with a conversational approach to the stuffy, puffy-fingered cigar-gnashing denizens of the 99.9-percent print medium. This is no better revealed than in his early times take down of his would-be employer, ESPN, notably referring to the ESPYs as a TV Holocaust.
Simmons’ writing was never as controversial — or as serviceable — as he would have you believe. He never broke a story, but always reveled in making inside sports friends and drawing a decent enough following to justify his own perpetuation — though isn’t that any job?
There is nothing wrong with an ex-bartender Masshole making good and all of a sudden bathing in lanyards and free booze up in the beautiful people see-through boxes — especially when you look like a beady-eyed squirrel whose cheeks are stuffed with winter supplies. So props to Simmons.
When ESPN finally did lure him away from AOL, cost: One vintage SI sneaker phone, all the ESPN nude issue outtakes he could stuff into his hard drive …plus about $5 million/year, the Simmons brand didn’t exactly outperform expectations.
There was the unwatchable to the point where you would panic if you couldn’t immediately locate the remote NBA Countdown and some token credits on the 30 for 30 documentary series, but most notable while in residence in Bristol was Simmons’ own Grantland vertical (RIP). Grantland, which married sports and pop culture in the mostly predictable, somewhat unholy union that — though inevitable — has resulted in a kind of ubiquitous shorthand that neither advances the story nor take it to territories unmined. It sort of helped set the table for imitation news and commentary spoon fed to the click-bait masses and eschewed the idea that substance wins out over repetition.
If I am to take a half-step back, I can fully admit that sites like Death of the Press Box exist and perhaps persist because of the likes of Simmons. He paved the way and showed that even when you’ve got nothing to say — there’s always something to say.
But that has also come at a cost. There is a chicken-or-the-egg reality behind the whole conceit in media today. We get paid per click and if a 25 factoids about Point Break anniversary expose is going to receive as much, or more, revenue-generating attention as a timeless piece like Ian Gordon’s heartbreaking muckraking of the Dominican Republic’s sweatshop baseball system for Mother Jones where the literal thousands of hours spent researching, traveling, interviewing, cross-examining and fact checking bleed into the space between every word — yet yield no real windfall for the publication — well, it’s all a little disheartening.
In other words, did Bill Simmons ruin sports writing and water down the medium, or has he simply benefited from the dumbed-down system he helped create?
After watching the first three episodes of his new HBO show, marketed as a snappy, quippy, topical romp set in a high-brow man cave that would feel equal parts at home as a pad that belongs in a McConaughey rom com or a place you bring Zooey Deschanel home from the bars to just before clicking over to PornHub in your fantasy life; the fake exposed brick, the fake rough-hewn reclaimed wood accent wall, the fake bar with fake drinks that nobody fake drinks with the fake leather puffy couches, the fake stack of books all surrounding the fake host …I’d have to say it’s the latter.
Most food critics don’t write their first review until after they have visited a new establishment of import at least a half-dozen times, so doing a take down of Simmons’ show after a paltry trio of 27-minute episodes borders on unfair. The only problem is, I don’t plan on watching it any more (unless I’m stuck in a hotel and there’s no Golden Girls on. Captive business traveler audiences may be the only ones who sustain Simmons’ latest effort.) I won’t watch it, because there’s nothing there. When you were little did you ever blow up a balloon just to let it leak out entirely in your face to maybe see how your breath smelled?
That’s sort of the equivalent of what Simmons is currently doing on-air.
The opening monologue feels like a collection of the week’s best-of quasi-sports-related tweets that his interns dug up doing hashtag searches — smoothing out the corners and crafting them into in-quotes jokes. In the first episode, he dished out the necessary amount of effusiveness LeBron’s way for single-handedly rescuing the dead leaf metro of Cleveland from being a Kevin Smith script punchline, yet mentioned nothing of the real undercurrent (the league involvement) that changed the outcome of the N.B.A. Finals.
In later installments, he made Bill Hader seem boring (tough to do), Charles Barkley look mellow and detached (even tougher to do), Joe Rogan come off like someone you don’t want to have a beer with (actually, not too big a stretch), Ben Affleck want to start drinking again (all in a day’s work) and possibly gave Chris Bosh the kinds of thoughts you’re supposed to report after reminding him over and over and fucking over that he now captains a D-league team in Miami.
HBO already has a sports brand in Real Sports — a stale hour-long news magazine show that in spite of its AARP-centric cast fronted by Bryant Gumbel, still breaks out at least one impactful segment per episode — and with the expansion of the VICE empire could easily dedicate a side project to VICE Sports, which also seems like it’s trying to figure out whether to dedicate resources to actual reporting or just stuff about Robot Wars with F-bombs in the headline (hint: f-bombs in headlines are guaranteed triple-digit clicks in the first hour.)
So, bringing Simmons on, a man who only looks dynamic in comparison to his DOA counterparts in big sports media: Colin Cowherd, Clay Travis, Jay Glazer — all of whom remind me of annoying Buffalo Wild Wings shift managers — and the out-of-ideas mom’s basement caller-taker emeritus Jim Rome, looks like a safe bet with the spread that may be going bad.
Simmons’ show will last a season or two before HBO realizes that a man who is living off Disney severance really has no skin in the game beyond whatever it takes to show up with his canvas sneaks and $419 jeans. The reality is there are now two generations of relevant sports minds in this country: One fronted by Roger Angell, the only nonagenarian still out there doing it. Then a 70-year gap. And then a handful of up-and-comers who we don’t know about yet but already have 400k Snapchat followers, can write, shoot, edit and cast at the same time and have grown up awash in information but instantly know who’s peddling crap and who’s doing the work.
Simmons came up at a time when there wasn’t a difference between the two — and seems to not only mistake one for the other, but believes he can continue to lull an audience into identifying no effort as effortlessness.