Fans of ESPN.com's Bill Simmons have come to expect references to the Sports Guy's favorite movies, TV shows, and products: The Hangover , Friday Night Lights , Dunkin' Donuts, the Madden video game franchise. Simmons' first NFL picks column of the season , published on Thursday, has a different kind of endorsement. Just before he starts doling out gambling advice, Simmons explains that he's trying out some "new wrinkles this season." One of those wrinkles: "The Miller Lite Great Call of the Week."
Sports radio and TV broadcasts have long been larded with commercial tie-ins—the AFLAC trivia question, the Subway postgame show, and SportsCenter 's own Coors Light Cold Hard Facts . It's hard to think of a precedent, though, for a sports column (or any other kind of column) with an in-article advertisement. Rob King, the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, explains that the site's editorial team and sales staff have long been searching for an appropriate branding opportunity for the enormously popular Sports Guy. In trying to "grow this business," King says, "Bill Simmons is the shiniest object we can offer in terms of association."
The decision to find an advertiser for the NFL picks column was a collective one, King explains. Miller Lite wanted a tie-in with someone who (according to King) gets 600,000 to 800,000 pageviews every time he writes. As for Simmons, King says the columnist was pleased that sponsors were clamoring to be associated with his work.
The Miller Lite promo, which will appear in all of Simmons' NFL prediction pieces, includes a box labeled "Great Call of the Week" and a rectangular ad ("Triple Hops Brewed. Great Pilsner Taste.") that chases down the page as you scroll. (Simmons' allusion in Thursday's column to the "We Couldn't Get This Sponsored Underdog Lock of the Week" was just a joke—"we weren't trying to sell every piece of what he's writing," King says.) This week's Great Call: Michael Crabtree's decision to hold out because the San Francisco 49ers won't pay him what he's worth. "Crabtree might be ruining his career and setting hundreds of thousands of dollars on fire," Simmons writes, "but at least he earned my Miller Lite Great Call of the Week."
King notes that sponsored features aren't anything new on ESPN.com. Simmons' podcast is sponsored by Subway, and ESPN's Major League Baseball power rankings are presented by the U.S. Army. King says that having spent 20 years working for newspapers, his standards almost certainly wouldn't allow him to endorse placing an advertisement in the midst of a news or enterprise story.
While it's hard to see how the Bill Simmons-Miller Lite partnership harms anyone, ESPN could be more explicit and careful about it in weeks to come. The "Great Call of the Week" box isn't labeled as sponsored content and is formatted like a typical Simmonsian sidebar. More important than that styling issue is the question of what this ad deal augurs. You can argue, as King does, that the placement of a sponsored box alongside an NFL picks column doesn't constitute a breach of the editorial-advertiser firewall. On the other hand, it's no minor thing when the most-popular writer for the Web's most-visible sports site starts incorporating sponsored messages into his copy. Every media organization is desperate to turn a profit. If ESPN pulls this off, the Great Call of the Week could prove irresistible to newspapers. Tom Friedman's KFC Fiery Buffalo Wings Middle East Hot Spot of the Week, anyone?