You may or may not have heard of Grantland, depending upon your dedication to the world of sports journalism. Most people define Grantland as a website specializing in sports and pop culture, but to many it was more than that. It was a website that took a unique view on sports, covering topics not often found in your standard ESPN articles. And you’ll notice that we’re saying “was” instead of “is,” because Grantland has been shut down.
In some ways, we might have seen this coming. It wasn’t that long ago that we covered the struggles of The Undefeated, another ESPN site which promised a unique view of sports by focusing its lens on racially driven content. Even more recently, we spoke of the firings at ESPN and questioned whether or not sports viewership might be falling. But throughout all of that, many just assumed that Grantland would be safe. It was a relatively new institution, but an institution nonetheless.
So in honor of this dearly departed haven of journalistic ingenuity, we’d like to talk a bit about Grantland’s history and what it meant to those who appreciated it. We will also talk a little bit about its downfall, and reassess our views on whether or not there is trouble looming in ESPN’s horizon. You may be gone, Grantland, but you will never be forgotten. It is always a tragedy when good sports sites die young.
The History of Grantland
As we said, the site died young, so there isn’t a whole lot of history to speak of. The site was started in 2011 by writer and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. Thanks to a unique sponsorship model devised largely by Simmons himself, Grantland promised to compensate its writers well for their work while seeking quality content over articles designed simply for the purpose of getting clicks. Sponsors such as Subway and Klondike were willing to hop aboard this new model, with the understanding that this wouldn’t be the kind of site that published dozens of articles in a day.
While the goal of the site was not to inundate the cybersphere with clickbait, Simmons was positive that acquiring an audience would not be too much of a struggle. “It’s the quantity over quality trap,” Simmons said in differentiating Grantland from other news sites. “Everyone’s chasing page views and I’m not sure that’s always the way to go. We want to put up longer, more thought out stuff, because there’s definitely an audience for that kind of writing.”
If the site’s vision itself wasn’t enough to gain attention, they certainly earned some street cred due to the depth of star power they had behind some of their articles. Contributions by athletes and journalists are nothing new for an ESPN-operated enterprise, but Grantland also featured pieces by screenwriters, novelists, comedy writers, and celebrated nonfiction authors such as Chuck Klosterman and Malcolm Gladwell. These were not simply one-time contributors, either. Gladwell, for instance, contributed frequently to the site (even appearing in some videos), and had a few collaborations with Simmons himself.
Despite the broad range of honest and sometimes opinionated content offered by the site, Grantland rarely attracted controversy. Only one article (“Dr. V’s Magical Putter”) drew unwanted attention and required a response from Bill Simmons. The article concerned a putter created by the eponymous “Dr. V,” a transgendered physicist/inventor by the name of Essay Anne Vanderbilt. Not only was the article badly timed (Vanderbilt committed suicide not long before its publication), but its treatment of gender issues was also heavily criticized. Even ESPN’s own Christina Kahrl (who serves on GLAAD’s board of directors) wrote a guest editorial criticizing the piece. The piece was also criticized in an article by ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who not only thought the piece to be irresponsible but also badly written, calling it a “bloated selfie.”
More than anything, as noted by a Rolling Stone article on Simmons’ career, was the fact that Vanderbilt was not openly transgendered. Writer Caleb Hannan had written about her personal life after promising not to, had outed her to one of her investors, and then used her suicide to add a bit of sensationalist flair to his article. Her suicide, which many believed that he had helped cause.
That all happened in early 2014, and Simmons received almost as much hate for the article as Hannan, if not more. Then, in May of 2015, Simmons’ reign over Grantland came to an end. ESPN’s president, John Skipper, assured the press that it was simply a business decision and that it did not reflect badly on Simmons at all. By all appearances, the issue appeared to be some sort of unspoken creative differences. Regardless of the reasons, the driving force behind Grantland was gone. And by the end of October, ESPN would announce that the site’s publication had come to an end.
Grantland is officially no more, a mere archive of contributions from the site that once was. Their front page is now a mere collage, adorned with a most fitting headline:
Why Grantland Was Important
Simmons was a man with many flaws, but his basic premise concerning Grantland was right on the money. There are, indeed, people who are willing to read longer articles in exchange for intellectual discourse on the nature of sports itself, the politics of it, and its impact on pop culture. It isn’t that major sports news outlets never provide such content. You’ll see it every once in a while, but it isn’t too common. With Grantland, those who wished to look for intriguing discussions on topics that might be looked over by other outlets had a place where they could go to find unique content written by esteemed personalities.
Without Grantland, there’s really nothing that can come close to replacing it. The closest thing that ESPN had ever had was Page 2, a site with a similar premise that hired Hunter S. Thompson as a columnist in 2000. But Page 2 closed down in 2012, one year after Grantland began. Without either of them, this type of insightful content is harder to come by. You might see some of it on ESPN from time to time, maybe in The New York Times or Rolling Stone. And it stands to reason that you’ll find what you want in Sports Illustrated. But it’s not the same. These outlets may provide similar content, but not written by similar personalities. Culture-driven sports content may make an appearance here and there, but it has no true home anymore.
It seems strange that it would be so hard for a site like Grantland to thrive in today’s world, a world in which bias has become almost fully ingrained into journalism of all sorts. Read almost any article about Tom Brady’s role in Deflategate and you’ll find an opinion piece flavored with a couple of facts. Read about last year’s Super Bowl, and you’ll find heated debates regarding the Seahawks’ last play. Even Game 5 of the World Series has devolved into a bunch of writers talking about whether or not the Mets would have won if Matt Harvey vacated the mound earlier than he did. Now that it’s suddenly okay for journalists to openly voice their opinions on an almost obnoxiously consistent basis, you’d think that a site like Grantland would be doing quite well.
And, yes…we’re aware that we voice our own opinions pretty frequently. It’s not a trend that we’re fighting against, but we like to show some gratitude to the sites that perfected the art. Page 2 and Grantland are among those sites. Of course, this kind of personalized writing is not without its flaws. Many SB Nation blogs offer deep and insightful discussions of sports, even if they are geared mostly toward specific teams rather than the world of sports and pop culture at large. But look around long enough, and you’ll find more than a couple of the “bloated selfies” admonished by Lipsyte. You’ll know them when you see them. You’ll be five paragraphs deep in a rant about the author’s childhood or what he/she ate for lunch that day, and you still won’t have read a single word that pertains to the headline. Grantland wasn’t immune to this sort of thing—the Vanderbilt piece actually began a bit like that. But they avoided it more often than not.
Grantland wasn’t perfect, but it still gave many sports writers a standard to which they might aspire. Just because their focus was turned toward a single topic did not mean they couldn’t aspire to the greatness of writers such as Malcolm Gladwell. ESPN actually named the site after Grantland Rice, a sports writer known for his turn of phrase. There isn’t much need for style when recapping stats or making series predictions. Thanks to writers like Rice, Thompson and Gladwell, elegance has been given a place in the sports world. Sites like Page 2 and Grantland may be gone, but we don’t have to let go of what they represent. To those who truly believe in the sanctity of sports writing, these sites were bigger than the sum of their parts.
Why Grantland Is No More
The death of Grantland is the product of mass speculation right now. Was it too expensive to manage a site that wasn’t turning any real profit, or were interoffice politics to blame?
In a Q&A with most recent Grantland editor-in-chief Chris Connelly, the question most certainly came up. He didn’t quite answer it directly, but he definitely mentioned financial issues. “My feeling is, for what it is worth, we found ourselves up against new economic realities that maybe had not been foreseen when I took the job,” said Connelly. “When you are doing a site that you understand is not making money, you kind of understand when times get challenging or there is a new economic climate, you will be scrutinized very closely. I think the site continued to do fantastic editorial, for which I want to be sure not to take credit. That was the product of the editors and writers who were there every day of the week. But in this economic climate you will be very closely scrutinized if you are not a moneymaking operation.”
Connelly appears to attribute the demise of Grantland to financial difficulties. As for interoffice politics, he actively denies that they had anything to do with it. He states that everyone had a great deal of respect for Simmons, that he was receiving respect himself when he took over the position, and that there was little warning from ESPN before they finally pulled the plug. If this is all true, then Grantland might just be another casualty of the current changes taking place at ESPN. We had assumed that ESPN was trying to focus more on web-based content, but now it would appear as if their goal is a bit more specific than that.
Of course, there is a much more cynical explanation. And not surprisingly, Deadspin were the first to point it out. Back when Grantland was first launched, Deadspin wrote an article called “Why Grantland Rice Sucked” about…well, you can probably guess what it’s about. They point out that the purple prose for which Rice was known did not actually suit the topics of his writing.
Their best example is as follows: “Did you ever hear of the battles of Gettysburg, Bull Run or Waterloo? Of how Napoleon crossed the Alps on a mule and Washington the Delaware on a piece of floating ice? Well, all these were mere skirmishes compared with the struggle that took place yesterday at Athletic Park.”
Deadspin’s primary issue with this is that it was about a minor league baseball game. It’s okay to use a bit of hyperbole and metaphor here and there. It adds quite a bit to a good article. But you can only utilize so much rhetoric in a sports article before it reads like something out of The Onion. And Deadspin aren’t the only ones who think that Rice’s overly serious approach to sports writing actually cheapened the subject matter. They also quote Robert Lipsyte, the same ombudsman who took issue with Grantland’s Vanderbilt piece:
“[T]he writer who likens a ballplayer to Hercules or Grendel’s mother is displaying the ultimate contempt—the ballplayer no longer exists as a person or a performer, but as an object, a piece of matter to be used, in this case, for the furtherance of the sportswriter’s career by pandering to the emotional titillation of the reader/fan. Rice populated the press boxes with lesser talents who insisted, like the old master, that they were just sunny fellows who loved kids’ games and the jolly apes who played them.”
You’ll note that Lipsyte’s contempt for Rice is not unlike his disdain for the “bloated selfies” that populate today’s internet-based writing industry. But for the most part, to its credit, Grantland did avoid this sort of thing. And a lot of that was due to Simmons, who defined the voice of the site. Without that voice, it was only a matter of time before Grantland lost its footing. Especially since, as Deadspin noted in a more recent article, four of the site’s editors left with Simmons. They didn’t warn anybody that they would leave, primarily because Simmons had told them that mum was the word if they wanted to continue working with him after his departure. At least, according to Deadspin. Connelly says that each of those editors gave two weeks’ notice. Either way, these staff changes were bound to have a lasting impact on the site. We’re not saying they couldn’t have survived it, but the fact of the matter is that they didn’t.
Rice’s work may not have stood the test of time, but the work presented on Grantland is some of the best of our generation. If you don’t believe us, look through their archives. And when you do, make sure you pay attention to the writers’ names. No matter where they end up, you’re going to see great things from them in the future.
Is This a Bad Omen for ESPN?
In ESPN’s official statement on Grantland, they claimed that “the legacy of smart long-form sports story-telling and innovative short form video content will continue, finding a home on many of our other ESPN platforms.” This might explain why ESPN didn’t bother simply selling Grantland, as they are not necessarily finished with all of its content. Furthermore, it wouldn’t actually make sense for them to sell a property that could end up competing with them, especially not if they’re refocusing their efforts toward digital content in the ways we have predicted.
Some believe that this is not a bad omen for ESPN, but rather a symptom arising from the poor state of online journalism. Sports Illustrated’s Jim Cavan credits this belief to a specific line from ESPN’s official statement: “After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.” According to Cavan, the real message behind this statement was that Grantland was too unique, and did not bring in enough money. Cavan feels that uniqueness in journalism runs counter to the goals of corporations that do not want to readjust their business model to handle niche content. If Cavan is right, then ESPN may never try anything like Grantland again.
Ty Duffy of The Big Lead makes an important distinction, however, between the type of writing present on Grantland and the type of writing for which ESPN is primarily known. He refers to much of the writing on Grantland as “long-form blogging,” noting that it isn’t the same as journalism in the sense that it is all opinion with little in the way of cold truth. In a sense, he is here disagreeing with the sentiment expressed by Cavan. The state of online journalism is fine, because journalism serves a purpose. Grantland, from a purely practical standpoint, did not. It inspired greatness in its writers, and it was much appreciated by many. But artistic value is subjective. Objectively, Grantland’s value was meaningless.
Of course, both Duffy and Cavan’s points might be moot in the end. An article by Clay Travis of Fox Sports puts the whole thing into perspective, by pointing out that journalism has always been fueled by advertising. Even print journalism has always been paid for by advertisements. Despite Simmons’ unique sponsorship model for Grantland, it simply didn’t make enough money. This is unfortunate. In a world fueled by clickbait, in which half-truths are published in the first three paragraphs (the only paragraphs many users bother to read), a site as unique as Grantland literally cannot afford to survive without bringing in a profit.
ESPN’s other online ventures appear to be making money, so there’s little reason to suspect that they are in trouble. They might give up on The Undefeated at some point, but that would hardly surprise anybody. The writing industry, and in fact many of the staffers at Grantland, will be just fine. Many are thinking that Grantland’s closing is a sign of something terrible, but it’s not. It’s just an unfortunate event from which ESPN, Grantland’s staff, and we readers will all recover.
Grantland’s death will doubtlessly affect anyone who appreciated its life. For the rest of us, however, life goes on.