The Evolution of Bill Simmons: From @SportsGuy33 to @BillSimmons

Exactly five years ago, Bill Simmons announced he was joining Twitter. Hedid so on his Blogspot site (seriously). He had already cemented his position as the most popular writer on ESPN.com, if not the most popular sports writer in the country, and he was taking his “every fan” mentality to Twitter. During his first nine months on the platform, he was a veritable addict.

Simmons used Twitter to share witty insights, provide real-time commentary, and engage with fans. It even became a goal amongst my friends to get retweeted by the Sports Guy — one of my friends managed to during the NBA lockout.

By the time ESPN and Simmons launched Grantland in June 2011, he had amassed 1.4 million followers (he’s now at 2.6 million). The day after his new site launched, I wrote a post on Simmons as an entrepreneur, focusing on his ability to extend his influence via his popular podcast, the B.S. Report, and the30 For 30 documentary series, which he co-created, and the lessons an entrepreneur could learn from him.

Over nearly the last three years, Simmons has built out a team of sports and pop culture junkies that consistently churn out some of the best quality content, whether it’s on Twitter, podcasts, YouTube, or Grantland itself. Meanwhile since joining the Worldwide Leader, Simmons has evolved from scrappy blogger to snarky columnist to editor-in-chief to TV sports pundit, doing his best not to become the very type of banal talking head that he built a reputation making fun of.

In a Rolling Stone profile that came out yesterday, Rob Tannenbaum looks at this evolution of Simmons, highlighting how his use of Twitter has changed (he uses it “almost exclusively to promote and link to Grantland material”) and that he writes fewer sports columns (just check out his archive from 2001-2008 to get a sense of how prolific he was). These observations, with which I can’t argue, lead Tannenbaum to believe that “Simmons is kind of over the internet.” That statement, however, is one with which I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that Simmons is just getting started with leveraging the internet to drive distribution of his (and Grantland’s content), but there has been a distinct change in his approach over the last couple years.

An interview with Simmons conducted by Peter Kafka and published in January of this year, does a great job of highlighting the former’s early adoption of podcasts and how and why he’s building a podcasting empire at Grantland. In addition to his flagship B.S. Report, there is the Grantland Pop Culture network comprised of seven different podcasts, while the Grantland Sports network is up of six unique podcasts. Combined, they received over 50 million downloads last year, and that number will certainly be significantly higher in 2014 as the two networks become more established and possibly add more podcasts. Meanwhile, Simmons has used YouTube creatively and better than almost any other media personality out there, regardless of industry. Grantland has used YouTube annotations to easily allow listeners to skip to sections of a podcast that’s been videotaped, they’ve broadcasted live podcast tapings on YouTube, and they’ve been on air live as Simmons & Co. watched and discussed the opening round of NCAA Tournament games during the last couple years, making viewers feel like they were hanging out on the couch with them. These unique uses are on top of the extensive archive of original content on the Grantland YouTube channel. To say that Simmons is “over the internet” couldn’t be further from the truth. However, what Simmons is over is being the “Sports Guy” and engaging in an active dialogue with fans around his content.

The Sports Guy persona that brought him national recognition has been retired, both in the form of his original Twitter handle (@SportsGuy33) and in the tone and style of his writing. You’d be hardpressed to find the types of articles from that aforementioned archive appearing on Grantland these days unless they were written by Rembert Browne, Molly Lambert, or another young up-and-comer. Now, it feels like Simmons is going through the motions when it comes to many of his columns recently, or as Jalen Rose would say, he’s in “keep gettin’ dem checks!” mode when it comes to churning out written pieces for Grantland.

Perhaps more importantly, the way Simmons uses Twitter these days speaks volumes. Gone are the days of retweeting followers with an acknowledgement or snarky comment. I couldn’t scroll back far enough in his timeline to find any (the one with @BoogieCousins doesn’t count), and using Twitter search, the last one I found was in late 2012 (coincidentally around the time when he switched from being @SportsGuy33 to @BillSimmons). It’s purely a broadcasting channel for him now. He hardly shares his opinion on Twitter anymore, instead saving it for TV, which shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. On Grantland, there isn’t a comments section for his columns; yet,there is for the other contributors. Again, he’s encouraging a one-way conversation, essentially removing his readers’ opinions from appearing near his content. The only dialogue occurs during his mailbag columns, but that is a conversation on his terms, as he gets to pick the emails he answers. His primary media for sharing his opinion are TV, YouTube, and podcasts, broadcasting platforms that provide few options for viewers and listeners to provide commentary and / or feedback. Given the trend highlighted above, I bet that Simmons would disable comments on his YouTube videos if he could.

This commentary isn’t meant to be a critique of Simmons, so much as it is merely an observation of how his changing use of content creation and distribution platforms has coincided with his rise in celebrity. I still continue to be an ardent follower / reader / listener / viewer of Simmons and a borderline apologist (just ask my friends), but it would be nice to see one of his patented running diaries or a vintage “ramblings” column make a cameo on Grantland for old times’ sake.