Thursday, October 22, 2009

What Would Bill Simmons Do?

When ESPN execs read things from Bill Simmons like what he told Huffington Post...
Part of me can't shake the temptation of being the underdog again -- like, launching my own sports site, hiring some talented writers and designers and trying to compete with the big guns. Like what Frank Deford did with the National. All right, the National lost $100 million. Bad example.

But I could see doing something crazy like that. I like taking chances, I am not afraid to fail, and beyond that, I am not afraid to fail violently and miserably. So anything is possible. A really good prediction would be, "Simmons is going to fail violently and miserably with a super-ambitious idea within the next five years." Lock it down.

...They could be nervous that Bill might leave. I'm not sure about that -- for all the griping about creative control, I suspect he likes the comfy cash position and brand association. Otherwise, he would have left at his last contract renewal, when he had lots of other ways to go.

That said, the state of the world has changed dramatically in even the year or two since then. Rather than looking for a multi-million dollar deal from a Fanhouse or a Yahoo or a CBS or a Fox, there are plenty of opportunities for Bill to strike out on his own.

If he did -- like, tomorrow -- I'm pretty sure he could create millions of dollars of revenue for himself (not to mention autonomy), virtually overnight. I would hope he sees that, but only chooses to ignore it -- in favor of other competing drivers that keep him happy where he is. (And there are plenty of them, both intrinsic and explicit.)

All that said, ESPN execs would be wise to remember the lesson of the Washington Post and Politico. Politico's founders came to the Washington Post FIRST, explaining their great idea. The Post passed; the guys found outside investment and launched their own company, which has nimbly beaten the Post at its own game, in its own backyard.

I'm not saying SimmonsCo would beat ESPN -- then again, it doesn't have to. Bill's departure wouldn't hurt ESPN's revenues; Bill's new independent company would create new value -- the best kind. Still: ESPN would miss not only Bill's popularity but his creative energy on projects he engages on -- see his key involvement in "30 for 30."

And so here's my free consulting advice to ESPN:

Approach Bill with an offer of funding and equity to create his own company -- NOT an ESPN subsidiary, but a stand-alone company that simply creates a financial stake in SimmonsCo for ESPN. Maybe that would satisfy Bill's entrepreneurial jones -- while still allowing ESPN to enjoy the upside.

Or maybe Bill really does say "Eff it," walks away from ESPN with nothing more than his talent and his personal brand and tries to make it as a sports-media entrepreneur. There is plenty of investment money out there that would probably pay big -- even overpay -- to fund Bill's dream. (Bill should just amble down his nearest L.A. freeway to would-be content mogul Jay Penske's office, as Penske tries to figure out what he'll do with the uber-URL

As we talked about last week at the blogs conference in Las Vegas, it's not just about quality -- it's about distribution. Now, between the consumer interest in Simmons (going directly through the front door) and the high potential interest of distribution partners (who can put his content in front of a lot of people -- like ESPN did when he came over from AOL), he will be on to something... potentially something very big.

Want a great example of a personal brand combined with some very savvy content strategy? Huffington Post. I actually think that Simmons could pull off something similar -- if not at HuffPo's magnitude -- provided Bill had the right folks working on the strategy and technology sides.

I'd be curious to see how far that can go for him. My guess is far enough, at least to make him happy. Bill says he's not afraid to fail -- it would be a shame to see him waste that fearlessness by not taking the chance.

-- D.S.


Sean B Fitzgerald said...

ESPN may not be worried about a possible departure for Simmons next summer. What they can worry about is Simmons pulling a Jerry Maguire "Who's coming with me?" and taking some of ESPN's (among others) current and future talent.

With quotes like that (from the Huff Post), he's acting like LeBron regarding next summer. Dropping little hints left and right. He may just be leveraging his position, but it's going to be interesting regardless.

joemak said...

Some great points in there. If Simmons did decide to leave I am sure ESPN would jump at investing probably just so they could still assign the traffic he generates. I think now more then ever he can jump ship due to his 900k twitter followers. It will make it extremely easy to promote a new site. I am sure that has to be in the back of his head.

The one thing he doesn't understand is advertising. He mentions highering a good designer and writers but he will also need a good sales person with media contacts.

Joe M.

Sean B Fitzgerald said...

I think he's saying all these things for leverage.

How could he pass up ESPN money?

He'd be taking a huge financial risk if he were to start his own site.

Maybe he has the confidence. He certainly has the support.

Drew S said...

Right on Shanoff...Two questions that must be answered:
1- What does ESPN add to Simmons right now that it wouldn't have otherwise?
Answer: Nothing. People read Simmons because he's Simmons, not because he writes for
2- What does Simmons add to ESPN right now that it wouldn't have otherwise?
Answer: Nothing. Whether people read Simmons on or, we're still going to go to the world-wide-leader in sports for our sports news (sorry, just being honest).

Go Gators, and Simmons if you read this and want some good legal rep just let me know.

Steve Sprague said...

Simmons is gone when his next contract is up. He sees the traffic generated by Deadspin, the success of Huffington Post, he sees everything. The man is an internet junkie and knows what works and what doesn't.

He's taken on the last challenge ESPN can offer him with 30 for 30. He doesn't want a radio show, he already does his podcasts, he's losing interest in writing, and with 30 for 30 he's done TV. I don't know if he'd want to do a movie, but ESPN isn't the place for that.

I think that was a very smart trial balloon in the Huffington Post. If there is a lot of positive feedback to him leaving he will do it. Frankly he needs to do it. As I said it does not appear that he is interested in writing anymore. Perhaps the book and 30 for 30 zapped his energy, but I think it comes down to he needs a change of scenery.

I halfway agree with him. He says he will fail miserably within 5 years. I say he won't fail, but he will be on his own.

Patrick said...

I agree that Simmons would do well on his own, but only if he can find an appropriate counterpoint. Hubris could be the death of his site if he stays too one-dimensional.

I'd be interested to see what kinds of writers he picks as his talent. That's the make or break in this scenario. Who's going to write/broadcast on the days Simmons doesn't produce content?

Unknown said...

I have plenty of other inspirations for becoming a sports journalist now far into my writing ventures, but know this: If an opportunity ever knocked to join a Simmons-led journey of some kind, I would lend whatever sort of talents I possibly could.

Bill's combination of pop culture-wit and sports jargon is always a great read, and his Podcasts are always insightful with a great variety of guests. He started at the bottom, and I think he's a humble enough guy that if anyone could do it, he could.