I'll begin by saying I like reading Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy. Among the other writers at ESPN.com's Page 2--the tin-earred, falsely drama of Scoop Jackson, the hyper-reaction of Skip Bayless, the schticky logorrhea of Gregg Easterbrook--Simmons is usually clear, direct, and funny. And, as he likes to point out, why complain about a free column?
That said, the quality of his columns has diminished over time. For example, see his tediously long, obvious comparison between Larry Bird and David Ortiz. What a shock that Bird, fondly known to Simmons as "Larry Legend" and "The Basketball Jesus," won out. Or notice the frequency of mailbag columns lately, the truest sign of Simmons mailing it in.
And the apt criticisms have increased. See the Bill Simmons column generator, Awful Announcing's regular analysis of Simmons' columns, or any reaction to the Sports Guy cartoon(scroll down).
So why has this happened? Why have a lot of Simmons' readers turned on him like Philly fans on Santa Claus? I've been thinking about this a lot, in part because I still check regularly for new columns. It's not like he's become a terrible writer; though he's not as sharp as he was, he's still often worth reading. So here's what I think has happened.
1. Simple attrition. He's not a journalist, he's a writer. I wouldn't even call him a sportswriter. He's a writer who happens to use sports as a general guiding focus. But he's been at his best when he rambles, when he veers away from sports to movies, the nature of his relationships with his male friends, etc. He doesn't write about sports so much as the places sports intersects with life.
Plus, he writes as a fan, particularly as a fan of the internet age. Reading Simmons' best columns is like reading one of those long, rambling emails from a friend who you only see a couple of times a year. Except he's obviously considered what ramblings work and what don't. That's why his Curious Guy segments aren't all that interesting--he asks questions like a fan without really challenging who he's writing with. Or the cartoon--the best word to describe the cartoon is, I think, execrable. Simmons is a good writer, but his timing in prose doesn't translate beyond prose. That's his strength and his limit.
At a certain point, of course, Simmons couldn't keep writing the same columns using the same strengths. He had to expand, which meant other kinds of experiments. So we get the good--his book, the columns about sports books (you know, the ones you read, not the ones where his picks aren't as good as he claims they should be)--but we also get the bad. And because he's writing for ESPN, the expectations are raised, and he has less opportunity to experiment on a smaller scale.
2. Age. He's grown up. You can date this to his move to the West Coast, if you'd like, though I think it's a little more complicated than that. He got married, had a daughter, bought what I assume is a big house, etc. Early on, Simmons posted several long columns per week, each one energetic. He posted each day of a week's trip to Vegas; he posted each day of a Super Bowl trip. Now the columns arrive less frequently; notice how often Simmons complains about his body.
So in the last few years we've seen some good ideas poorly executed. The intern contest, for one, which not only dragged on forever but ended with Simmons hiring a guy who always underperformed. Simmons' energy seemed split; writing both columns for ESPN and jokes for Kimmel seemed to drain him.
3. Speaking of the Kimmel show, Simmons seemed to lose perspective once he started writing for it. The show isn't that good. Strangely enough, Simmons regularly claims that Adam Carrolla is the funniest guy in any room he's in. I'll be happy to be proven wrong, but I couldn't agree less.
All that said, I still enjoy reading the Sports Guy. He's claimed recently he doesn't want to write his column much longer, or doesn't expect to. So let's enjoy what we can while we can. I'll still look forward to the next big project (a book, I hope).