Quick post this week to analyze who has appeared on The Bill Simmons Podcast, a perennial top five sports pod. Data is from Simmons's Ringer era only - the ESPN/Grantland days are left to a more diligent researcher!
First, here are all the guests to appear at least 3 times over the pod's 275+ episode run. "House of Carbs" host Joe House leads the pack, reflecting his large role in the early post-Grantland shows, as well as a continued presence for discussions of the NBA, D.C. sports, and anything food-related. Proud gambling degenerate Cousin Sal is close behind, then there's a big gap before NFL commentator Mike Lombardi, resident Yankee fan (and Republican!) JackO, plus many other familiar Simmons collaborators.
While it's no surprise to anyone who follows Simmons that buddies like House and JackO are frequently heard from, it is a little surprising how few women have appeared...
Out of 433 guest spots across the 275 episodes tracked, only 18 (4.16%) were made by women. Nine women have appeared versus 135 men. The complete list is as follows: Mallory Rubin has been on six times, Juliet Litman four, Sarah Tiana twice, then Sally Jenkins, Abby Wambach, Charlize Theron, Diana Taurasi, Katie Baker, and Katie Nolan once. Mike Lombardi has made more appearances than all of them combined.
So why does Simmons have so few women on the pod? One reason might be that his show is a sports podcast featuring athlete interviews...and the majority of famous athletes in America are men. However, loyal listeners know that Simmons doesn't actually talk to that many current players or coaches (regular Kevin Durant appearances aside).
Sexism obviously comes to mind. It can't be disproved, but I think it is unlikely since Simmons has always done a nice job hiring female writers, both for Grantland and The Ringer. Is Simmons for whatever reason just uncomfortable interviewing women? I suppose it's possible.
Still, to understand who Bill Simmons talks to, it might be instructive to understand what he talks about. Looking at the words most frequently appearing together in episode descriptions (excluding guest names and stopwords), it appears Simmons is pretty locked onto the NFL and NBA:
This makes sense from both the perspective of Simmons's own personal interests (Celtics! Patriots!) and as a strategy to maximize podcast downloads - the NFL is America's most popular sport, while the NBA appeals to a younger crowd perhaps more likely to be into pods.
The metrics angle is worth considering further. It's well-known that The Ringer monetizes primarily from podcast ad revenue, and given this dependence one can't help but wonder if Simmons has found that episodes with female headliners (e.g. Abby Wambach, Diana Taurasi, or Charlize Theron) perform worse than the rest? This would be disappointing, but could at least provide an economic rationale for how Simmons chooses interview subjects.
Taking this possibility into account, I would guess there are a couple of reasons for Simmons's overwhelmingly male guest selection. First, Simmons just likes talking to his old college buddies - and these people are men. Second, by bringing on guests he already knows pretty well, Simmons reduces prep time for podcasts (allowing more episodes) while also generating stable download numbers due to listener familiarity. People really like hearing Simmons and Cousin Sal guess the lines each week.
However, for someone who has been fine featuring obscure male interviews (Jason Stein anyone?), it would be a refreshing change for Bill Simmons to broaden his podcast's guestlist.
Analysis code and data is available on Github.
Slightly off-topic random thoughts on The Sports Guy: I read Simmons's columns religiously from 2005 to about 2015 or so. He's undoubtedly one of the most influential sportswriters of the last two decades. Furthermore, the 30 for 30 series was a phenomenal accomplishment, and despite his endless Celtics homerism Simmons stands as a legitimate NBA historian. While everyone has one now, podcasts were not always an obvious choice - yet Simmons recognized the format's potential as a compelling alternative to sports radio. Simmons's defining ESPN project, Grantland, was awesome, both in terms of content and the careers it helped launch, and more recently The Ringer has begun to carve its own niche too. In my mind his shtick has unfortunately grown stale - Simmons has clearly been left behind by some of the more analytical NBA commentary that's arrived, along with certain podcasting upstarts - but he has undoubtedly had an amazing career.