I miss Grantland.
Bill Simmons and ESPN created Grantland in 2011. From day one, it was my favorite site on the Internet. Grantland was officially discontinued on October 31, but the writing, so to speak, was on the wall once Simmons and ESPN acrimoniously parted ways back in May.
Honestly, I thought I’d be over it by now. I’m not.
I first started reading Simmons’ work when he was The Sports Guy, and his column used to appear online at ESPN.com’s The Magazine, and Page 2. I liked his irreverent style. I particularly enjoyed his categorizations and lists (The Levels of Losing and The Ewing Theory, for example). Although I despise the Celtics and Red Sox, and took particular glee in the Giants’ two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots, I enjoyed Simmons’ blatant inclusion of his Boston loyalty in his work.
Bill Simmons was a good writer. Grantland, however, showed that he was a brilliant evaluator of writing talent. Although rooted in sports and popular entertainment, Grantland’s content was more than traditional reviews or game reports. The site wasn’t concerned with promoting athletes’ brands, nor did it seem particularly concerned with scooping other outlets on massive exposés. It’s been described as “longform” feature-writing, but even that’s an oversimplification. I’d call it observational journalism. The only prerequisite, it seemed, was to find something interesting in the world of sports and/or pop culture, write about it in an interesting way, and write about it well.
I was 45 when Grantland debuted, but it brought back vivid childhood memories. My family lived in England during my early teens, well before the digital age. My only exposures to American sports were Armed Forces Radio, and my Sports Illustrated subscription. I read and re-read those stacks of Sports Illustrated until I could recite every cover and remember almost every amazing picture. They were my connection to home.
Would I have the same experience now? No way. I’m too cynical to believe the profile pieces anymore (though I do still frequent SI.com, as well as ESPN.com), and beautiful imagery isn’t exclusive. With the right television and online subscription packages, I can watch any event I want. There are a million highlights available. I get a reaction shot from every single player on the field on any significant play. There are 5-10 analysts, at least, dissecting what I just watched. There are countless statistical or technical expositions to review.
I often ask myself if that childhood experience of connecting to home and to sports through writing was simply the result of time and place, and nothing more. I don’t think so. For example, Grantland debuted about two years after my daughters started playing hockey (yes- ice hockey). By then, the sport had become part of the fabric of our family, and I couldn’t wait to share Sean McIndoe’s hilarious “Grab Bags” and Katie Baker’s brilliant features with them. (Like this one. As a prep school guy and a Yale grad, Katie and I trod some of the same dirt - although my dirt is old enough to be her dirt’s father.) Now, I enjoy writing about hockey myself. That’s not just entertainment. That’s influence.
At its best, Grantland’s brilliance drew from the communal experience of living a life in which sports are important. It enriched that experience for me as an adult the way those stacks of Sports Illustrated on my floor in London did for me as a kid. That’s why I don’t think I’m wrong about this — the art of writing about sports is important.
And that’s why I’m pissed off at Bill Simmons.
To start, some used Grantland’s demise as a referendum on people’s willingness to pay for writing content. It was our fault, us folks who log onto the internet and expect to be able to read stuff for free on major outlets. ESPN may not have hosted Grantland behind a paywall, but no one should think that its loyal readers weren’t paying for the privilege to read Steven Hyden’s rock articles or Wesley Morris’s movie reviews. We all already pay for internet content, and ESPN is a significant driver of those costs. (http://www.whatyoupayforsports.com/numbers/). In other words, we pay for access, and a significant subscriber fee for ESPN is built in to everyone’s monthly cable/high-speed internet bill. No one should ever have to pay extra for anything they read on ESPN or its affiliated websites.
A personal site like mine can’t monetize interactions, but an entity like ESPN or its Disney parent certainly can. I read most, if not all, of the articles (there’s only so much TV I can watch). I clicked on advertisements (almost everything I own fell off an internet truck somehow or another). I followed on Twitter and interacted or mentioned whenever I enjoyed something I read. Honestly, I only subscribed to Netflix to watch Mad Men and Breaking Bad because I hated having to ignore Holly Anderson’s and Andy Greenwald’s brilliant recap reviews.
As for Bill Simmons… It’s really pretty ironic that as keen an observer of the Entertainment and Sports World as Simmons was, he still became part of a typical VH1 Behind the Music story arc. When Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, became Bill Simmons, Major Editor-in-Chief, and ultimately Bill Simmons, TV Personality, Grantland was doomed. If anyone should have seen it coming a mile away, Simmons should have. Maybe he did, in which case I’m even more annoyed.
Grantland needed Bill Simmons The Sports Guy, not Bill Simmons ESPN NBA Host. On the pages of Grantland, Simmons could promote whatever agenda he wanted. Want to call Roger Goodell a liar on your podcast? Fine. Want to criticize the Mothership for showing the elevator tape of Ray Rice? Also fine. Want to disparage other programming on the network? A little inappropriate, but fine as well. Sure, he might have a few disciplinary issues along the way, but as the editor of Grantland, that was all part of the deal. He could say anything he liked, as long as it was entertaining, and it wasn’t illegal.
But… Want to do all those things once the $50 billion dollar conglomerate helps you build a personal entertainment empire, and you leverage that into a lifelong dream gig as an on-air NBA analyst/personality? FORGET IT! Once you are a face on the network, you represent the network. It’s a simple rule that Bill Simmons chose to ignore. He found out, like so many before him, that there are no exceptions.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of Simmons’ career plays out. He’s off to HBO, and brought some of his original contributors with him. To be honest, I don’t know how much I’ll watch. Video and audio pieces, though often excellent, are far less interesting to me than a well-written feature. I never enjoyed Simmons’ BS podcasts as much as I liked, for example, Spike Friedman’s daily About Last Night or Mark Lisanti's Derek Jeter's Diary. In the meantime, Bill’s hobnobbing with Barack Obama, doing a softball interview for GQ that he never would have done for any athlete other than Basketball Jesus himself. (Fair enough, it’s the POTUS, but still. I doubt very much there will be an Barack-Boogie Nights mashup anytime soon.)
Grantland will likely be remembered, if it’s remembered at all, as a mercurial niche in the modern world of sports coverage that was ultimately doomed by a lack of support for its brilliant founder by a visionless corporate overlord. I’ll remember it as a vibrant, creative world that not only recaptured a part of my past, but enriched and influenced my life. I’ll also hold a grudge against Bill Simmons forever, since there’s nothing left for me to do but rummage through the archives.