Why Bill Simmons Must Stay Focused to Survive Against ESPN

The past year has been a whirlwind for sports journalist Bill Simmons. What his future holds bears watching for anyone interested in how to stand out in an age of content overload.

In May 2015 ESPN announced it would not renew the network’s contract with Simmons, arguably its most popular personality. His unemployment would be short-lived, however; in October 2015 HBO signed Simmons to a $5 million contract to host a podcast, start a website and produce a television show. That same month Simmons launched the Bill Simmons Podcast, which achieved immediate popularity, racking up seven million listens in its first month.

Simmons fulfilled the second part of his HBO deal on June 1, launching The Ringer. Hosted by the digital-publishing platform Medium, The Ringer features stories by more than 20 staff writers covering sports, technology, culture, politics and entertainment. June 22 will mark the premiere of Simmons’ HBO show, Any Given Wednesday.

When that happens, Simmons’ audacious new media vision will be realized – as will a heated new competition with his former employers, the sports-media empire we know as ESPN. Taking on Disney-owned ESPN and its arsenal of cable, digital and print properties sounds about as advisable as marching toward Moscow in November. Can Simmons survive this battle?

I’m betting he will not only survive, but thrive. Because unlike so many other efforts to dethrone ESPN, it’s already clear that The Ringer does the one thing any media startup must do: tell stories that nobody else is telling, in a way that nobody else is telling them.

At Greentarget we talk a lot about rising above the noise. In this age of saturated media, there is little demand for more content of any kind, and especially for writing about pop-culture. However, there is always a demand for more high-quality storytelling. The Ringer’s future, and Simmons’, hinge on its commitment to continuously producing journalism that rises above the noise.

Where Others Have Failed

For nearly 30 years ESPN has dominated the sports media landscape, though it hasn’t gone unchallenged. Well-heeled competitors Fox Sports and NBC Sports have repeatedly attempted to knock ESPN off its throne. But today it’s still king of the sports world, reaching 81% of American households through its cable channels and drawing 62.8 million unique visitors per month to its homepage, by far the highest of any sports media site.

The failure of ESPN’s competitors thus far lies in their attempts to merely replicate ESPN’s style without doing anything truly different. On a normal day ESPN’s main competitor, Fox Sports 1, will devote much of its daytime programming to the dissecting of the previous night’s game action by various talking heads, while its nighttime programming will likely feature game broadcasts or continued chatter.

If we’re living in an era of noise, then nowhere is it noisier than in sports media. If you want to watch game highlights you can turn on SportsCenter anytime — it is literally aired 24/7 across ESPN’s family of networks — or go to ESPN.com and get them instantly. If you want basic analysis and (endless) debate, you can watch First Take, Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, SportsNation, His and Hers, Dan LeBatard is Highly Questionable, or any of ESPN’s various talk shows.

But here’s the rub. While ESPN is able to churn out 168 hours of sports programming every week, nearly anyone would agree that some of this coverage is, frankly, garbage (See: First Take’s seemingly endless debate over whether LeBron James possesses the “clutch gene”).

Simmons’ plan to rise above the noise is quite simply to avoid producing garbage.

Content Strategy: Don’t Post Garbage

For now at least, this means making no attempt to match ESPN’s scope. Better to limit the amount of stories and focus instead on quality storytelling. So far, I’d say, so good. Whether it is producing a deep dive on how television will be remembered once it becomes an antiquated technology, or an in-depth analysis on the historical nature of the 2016 Cubs season, The Ringer has already demonstrated its penchant for quality journalism.

To succeed, Simmons and his team will have to sustain that level of quality. And, of course, even if they can do that, it won’t guarantee success. Simmons’ previous online magazine, Grantland, won awards for its in-depth coverage of sports and American pop culture in its four-year run. However, its financial success was middling at best. At its peak Grantland averaged six million unique visitors per month — meager by ESPN standards — and was shut down in October 2015, shortly before Simmons signed with HBO.

Perhaps Simmons will thrive without whatever constraints ESPN placed on him; perhaps he will fail without ESPN’s massive reach and financial backing. Regardless of how the business fares, I’m betting that Simmons’ personal brand will get a lot stronger. That’s because I think he’ll succeed in delivering audiences a valuable, enjoyable experience — because his stories will rise above the noise.

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