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Bill Simmons Grantland HBO

Does the Bill Simmons/Medium move make sense?

By Rick Liebling, Marketing Professional

February 29, 2016 | 5 min read

Many of the biggest names in sports media tend to be polarizing figures, Colin Cowherd, Keith Olbermann, Jim Rome, the list goes on. As a result, they frequently bounce around from one media outlet to another. Bill Simmons is putting a rather innovative twist on this formula with the announcement that his new endeavour, The Ringer, would be live on Medium.

Simmons first came to prominence during the initial ‘rise of the blogger’ as the Boston Sports Guy, writing about his beloved Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots. He parlayed that into a gig at ESPN and was eventually able to turn his success into his own private fiefdom within ESPN – Grantland – a pop culture and sports site that feature the type of writing, and writers, one used to find in places like The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and other heavyweights of another journalistic era. But not unlike Icarus, Simmons flew too close to the sun too many times and last summer ESPN bosses decided they could do without this particular loose cannon. It’s worth noting that ESPN also cut loose the aforementioned Olbermann and Cowherd within months of Simmons’ departure.

But Simmons is the commodity that is always in short supply – a real talent. With a unique voice and a keen understanding of both sports and media, Simmons’ next move was eagerly awaited. An HBO deal was announced, and then came the news about medium. As Matthew Ingram noted in Fortune, the announcement signalled that “Simmons is doing what many hoped he would do following the breakup with ESPN, which is to launch something much like Grantland, the site he created within the sports network, but as a stand-alone, micro-media entity.”

What’s in it for Simmons?

It’s likely Simmons could have landed in a number of places, but the vast majority would have had a ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ vibe. It would have only been a matter of time before Simmons, in much the same manner as the career trajectory of Olbermann, would have chafed under the restrictions place on him by corporate bean counters or the old white guys in charge of content. With Medium, he’ll have a level of freedom he’d unlikely be able to get elsewhere. He also gets to position himself as a digital innovator, always a handy title to have when the conference organizers and angel investors come a calling.

He holds the upper hand here (and no doubt recognizes this), it’s a great platform but at the end of the day it’s not that distinguishable from Tumblr, Wordpress or even LinkedIn. It’s just another place on the net where people can post content. Simmons can use his notoriety as leverage in any negotiation with Medium.

What’s in it for Medium?

With Simmons, Medium enters into the ‘Premium Content’ game and thus positions itself for revenue generation. Advertising, subscription models, one-off micropayments or advanced publishing tools and analytics are all options they might look towards moving forward.

I posed these questions to Edward Lichty, who runs corporate development and strategy at Medium, in the comments section of Medium’s announcement post and he replied: “I don’t have anything specific to announce regarding your product questions (around monetization and analytics), other than to say broadly we intend to support publishers with the tools they need, including monetization.”

To answer the question posed in the title of this piece – my hunch is ‘no’. A far more interesting move for Simmons – and ESPN – would have been to give him a late night talk show platform for Grantland on ESPN. Perhaps that’s what Simmons will get with HBO, although his first project with the pay cable channel is purported to be an Andre the Giant documentary. Unless Medium is going to offer a new suite of offerings and tools, the platform just seems too limiting for what Simmons is capable of creating.

Rick Liebling is an independent sports marketing professional, you can follow Rick on Twitter at @RickLiebling

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