This is spot on, and I once told Robert the same thing many years ago.
That said, I do think there is one key difference. When Bill Simmons first started out (in his AOL days in the late-90s, even before he was writing three columns a week for ESPN), he was very clear that he had no interest in going to press conferences or being in the locker room to talk directly to players and coaches (that obviously changed when his career took off and he became a national figure and media mogul of sorts).
In fact, Simmons explicitly said being in the locker room or at the press conferences would actually prevent him from writing as a fan, because it would fundamentally alter the fan experience. That's because when Simmons started out, he intentionally only wrote about the fan experience and provided whatever his take was about any given moment from a fan's perspective. It didn't matter what coaches or players said. It didn't matter what happened at practice. What mattered was that feeling during the game--whether it was in the stadium or at home.
(There is another key difference, because Simmons only wrote about pro sports, he was also willing to criticize the decisions of coaches and players--something Robert (rightfully) doesn't do.)
But in my view, that has always been Robert's strength and why I have always come here to read his writing. As I mentioned above, I don't really have an interest in practice reports and player interviews (though I absolutely understand there are many who do, including Robert. And he does it well, which is why I hope he finds his way back to press conferences eventually).
What I look for is the bigger picture--what does this particular moment/game/team/season feel like as a fan; what does it mean in the big picture; and what does that meaning look like when we take the perspective of a long view of the modern era of Illini sports.
In my (limited) view, this is what Robert does that nobody else can. We can watch the press conferences ourselves; we can get player quotes from other places; we can get practice reports other places (which is not to say Robert can't or doesn't do that well).
But nobody in the Illini media world--traditional or otherwise--actually speaks to fans as a fan. That's what Simmons first did 25 years ago, and in my view that's what Robert was doing back in 2009 when it all began.
Just my two cents. Keep finding your way, roughy/Robert.