A good run, Grantland? It was wonderful while it lasted

Closure of ESPN website leaves void in world of online sports writing

Bills Simmons, the founder of the Grantland website, came to media prominence via an untraditional route. Photograph: Mike Windle/Getty Images.

Bills Simmons, the founder of the Grantland website, came to media prominence via an untraditional route. Photograph: Mike Windle/Getty Images.

 

“It was a good run.” That’s what you see now when you visit the Grantland website. The archives are available but from here on there will be nothing new. The shutters have been pulled down. It was part of a rough couple of days for a certain type of sports follower.

After an initial three solid weeks filled with Rugby World Cup action on a seemingly nightly basis, the gaps between games had expanded to a full week. A cruel eternity, it seemed. Rugby fans experiencing the difficulty of having a steady dosage suddenly reduced; addicts being quickly weaned off their fix.

That was bad enough: the knowledge that such a wonderful tournament was ending. Especially cruel then for that weekend to coincide with the announcement by ESPN that they were shuttering the sports and pop culture mashup that was Grantland.

Created in 2011, the website had been an interesting experiment. Named after notable US sportswriting figure Grantland Rice, it was the brainchild of Bill Simmons. “The Sports Guy” had been ESPN’s golden boy, until he wasn’t. After a sticky period last year when he’d publically challenged the integrity of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in his “BS Report” podcast, he was suspended by his paymasters.

Beginning of the end

Simmons had come to media prominence via an untraditional route. Originally the “Boston Sports Guy”, he had arrived into the mainstream via the internet rather than newsprint, covering his hometown Boston teams while throwing in pop culture references from all over the map. He wrote as a fan, he wrote with length, and he wrote on what he liked.

Second Captains

No restrictions of a traditional newspaper column length for Bill, instead sprawling treatises on the Boston Red Sox, the Celtics and New England Patriots. And footnotes. Lots of footnotes. Little asides used to great effect in storytelling, the Simmons way.

In its brief existence Grantland was something very special. It was more than mere content, that bland word now used to describe what one might have once called journalism. It’s a high compliment to say that one reads someone regularly despite having only a passing interest, if any, in the subject matter. Grantland had plenty of those writers. Sports, movies, television all covered with writing of substance.

Those under contract are being kept, while being spread out among the various strands of the corporate behemoth that is ESPN/Disney. What does that really mean? It’s hard to say. After getting in contact with former staffers there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Not a time to rock the boat; they remain under contract to ESPN, for a start. So it’s very understandable that making comments on the record about their current employer would be a delicate business.

At the Web Summit yesterday the Content and Sports stages were separated by about 30 yards of exhibition stands with myriad eager faces frantically searching out the gaze of a useful investor. All think themselves worthy but how many will actually make enough money to survive? Crossing between the two stages time after time, it seemed an interesting analogy.

“Cheap content produced quickly” might seem the mantra across many media organisations, and few are immune. Quotes from organised press appearances, PR puff pieces, listicles and click-bait. All good crowd-pullers to show numbers to the advertising sales department. Grantland was none of those, instead here was a place around which one might wander, landing upon lengthy, well-written pieces on topics in which you might not have thought yourself interested.

Data visualisation

Kirk Goldsberry

“I would love to tell you that this website will work”, Simmons had written back in June 2011. Many hoped it would. But talk from insiders had always been that this mad mix of sports-pop literature did not make money. In an environment where ESPN had laid off hundreds of workers barely over a week previously, without its founder and protector the writing was on the wall.

A good run? Yes, Grantland, it was indeed. For the sports guys in us all, it was wonderful.

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