Malcolm Gladwell & Bill Simmons

Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) joined Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) on his podcast to talk about NFL stadiums, NFL owners, and Colonel Blotto game theory.

Whenever Gladwell and Simmons get together I’m reminded of the time in college when I saw a poster advertising Lewis Black coming to campus. “Wow, Lewis Black is coming here!?!?”  It was amazing to me that Black would stop at a small college in Northwest Ohio.

That’s how these Gladwell and Simmons conversations feel. It’s amazing that two great thinkers come together and we get to listen.

The podcast is good and is worth a listen. These notes will be a short(ish) summary of some deeper ideas that weren’t fully fleshed out.

If you want more, you can read why Bill Simmons is a superforecaster and Malcolm Gladwell’s advice to writers.

Ready to learn stuff via pop culture?


Power law distributions.

Power law distributions are everywhere. United States cities are explained by power laws.


Digital song downloads are explained by power laws.


Stadium concerts are explained by power laws, and this is where we jump into Simmons’ and Gladwell’s conversation.


They’re talking about why it’s silly to build a football stadium and think you’ll have a bunch of stuff in it. Simmons asks, “Why build a stadium if you’re San Diego?” The simple answer is that you shouldn’t. But you won’t hear that. Instead there will be promises that it will REVITALIZE the area and BRING JOBS and PROVIDE A BOOM FOR THE ECONOMY. It will do nothing of those things.

If you understand that a few get rewarded by a lot, in this case, a few stadiums get a lot of the concerts you can start to puncture erroneous stories. In the podcast Gladwell laughs at the fall off from most to second most popular.

A new stadium sounds good, but that’s deep enough thinking.

In his book, Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin writes that we should look at any situation with three filters:

1- What are the words?

2- What are the numbers?

3- And then what?

If we use these filters to the question about a new stadium, we get some interesting follow up questions.

1- What are the words? When someone says “revitalize” what does that mean? What does “inspiring a generation” mean? What does it mean if they say they are “committed?” Were the owners in Seattle or St. Louis “committed” before they moved the teams?

2- What are the numbers? How many concerts will there be? (see above to see the odds against anything more than a handful). How much will it cost? No, really, how much will it cost?

3- And then what? What happens after you build it? (Will people come?) What about in London which promised low income housing? Did that work?  Judge for yourself.


Colonel Blotto game theory as explained by television/Netflix.

Simmons and Gladwell note that it’s harder to create a stand out television show. “Even Game of Thrones is watched by a fraction of people who watched Melrose Place at its height,” Gladwell says. Thanks to Michael Mauboussin, we can explain why.

In his podcast with Shane Parrish, Mauboussin introduced Colonel Blotto. Wikipedia explains it like this:

“Blotto games (or Colonel Blotto games, or “Divide a Dollar” games) constitute a class of two-person zero-sum games in which the players are tasked to simultaneously distribute limited resources over several objects (or battlefields). In the classic version of the game, the player devoting the most resources to a battlefield wins that battlefield, and the gain (or payoff) is then equal to the total number of battlefields won.”

This YouTube video via Scott E. Page also explains Blotto well.

The conclusions from Blotto are:

– If you are in the stronger position (entrenched company, imperial power), you favor fewer battlefields.

– If you are in the weaker position (startup, guerillas), you favor more battlefields.

Peter Thiel hints at this framework as a business strategy in Zero to One.  Mark Cuban applies the strategy to how he chooses basketball players. We can look at it through the screen of TV.

Today’s entertainment environment has many more battlefields. In two generations we’ve gone from three networks to infinite options.

Blogs (including this one) is one battlefield. Podcasts are another. YouTube channels a third and on we go. Blotto theory predicts that the weaker position players (startups, guerillas) will gain a larger share of the overall when there are more places to compete.

We won’t see another Friends, much less another M.A.S.H.. When Friends ended 52.5 million people watched. Over 105 million tuned in to watch M.A.S.H. Today’s greatest hits (Simmons and Gladwell mention Serial (40M) and Game of Thrones (6M) and Book of Mormon and Hamilton) have too many battlefields to compete on. The most popular show for the 2014-2015 television season was The Big Bang with 21 million viewers.

Our screen time is dispersed (but still follows the power law mentioned above) and will continue to be.

As a final example, take Simmons’ former employer ESPN. For a long time the “competition” battlefield was owned by them. Then video games became popular, accessible, and available and kids could watch people play those games instead of other games. The battlefields have increased and ESPN numbers are falling.


Timing matters.

Timing matters a lot. Seth Godin and Mark Cuban both admit their luck timing stock sales. Amy Schumer said she was about to quit before she met a woman on a train who unlocked a great joke. B.J. Novak told Tim Ferriss that The Office was lucky because iTunes and iPods with video helped keep the show alive early on.

Simmons and Gladwell say that David Bowie and Dire Straits got their timing right too. Both groups, as compared to The Rolling Stones or Billy Squier, did MTV right.

“If MTV comes along 7 years later, it’s a completely different thing,” Simmons says. “It wouldn’t have caught this collection of unforgettable people at awesome points in their career.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. Want to catch up on the posts, The Waiter’s Pad: Volume 6 is available here. You can also donate a few bucks here.

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