I remember waking up earlier this year on the morning of May 8th and immediately checking my twitter (yeah, us Millennials do that a lot). I saw that Bill Simmons was trending and I already figured out what had happened: ESPN and Bill Simmons had finally parted ways. Given the tumultuousness of Bill’s tenure during the last couple of years with the company (including notable feuds with First Take and Roger Goodell), I knew that their split was both imminent and inevitable.
I also knew then that once ESPN cut Simmons, it would only be a matter of time before long-form sports and pop culture blog Grantland, a site he created in 2011, would meet a similar fate. Despite ESPN President John Skipper’s assurance that the company would remain “fully committed to Grantland” post-Simmons, reports of the site’s low web traffic, writers leaving for other publications, and the companywide cost cutting meant that their death was on the horizon.
Sports media, like most corporations, is all about making absurd profits. It’s the reason why ESPN, FOX, TNT, CBS and NBC pay billions of dollars to the NFL, MLB, and NBA to broadcast their games. An apt comparison can be made to cinema. A movie can be critically lauded and granted various awards, but if it isn’t a blockbuster or making any real profit, the studios will consider that film a failure. As James Andrew Miller wrote, Grantland was not making enough money (only generating $6 million a year), thus setting the clock to its inevitable demise.
As the months passed, Grantland continued to operate under interim editor-in-chief Chris Connelly as it churned out content. This was until a few weeks ago when the Grantland YouTube channel took down most of its videos and the once fluid well of columns and podcasts dried up faster than the State of California. Jalen and Jacoby’s popular “Pop the Trunk” podcast was moved away from the Grantland banner and towards ESPN radio.
Finally, on October 30th, ESPN indefinitely suspended the site’s publication, drilling the final nail in the coffin of a brief, but rich, 4-year lifespan. As Richard Deitsch wrote for Sports Illustrated, it was a sad day for all sports fans.
Like many others, readers and writers alike, I too was saddened to see ESPN kill Grantland. The site’s amalgamation of sports and pop culture in the style of longform writing was Bill Simmons’ vision. Love him or hate him, Bill Simmons, formerly the blogger known as the Boston Sports Guy and creator of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, found a niche that worked: pop culture and sports can easily be worked together; compared through parallels that made context and magnitude translatable. One could write about the NBA playoffs one column and then talk about Game of Thrones in the other. One could even make reference to Game of Thrones in an NBA playoff game. Under Simmons, the skies were the limit on what writers could talk about and how they talked about it.
Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Grantland was unique and highly influential to my own style of blog and column writing. Reading articles from esteemed writers such as Wesley Morris, Andy Greenwald, and Rembert Browne taught me that longform (pieces over 1000 words) could be just as engaging as standard articles fewer than 800 words in length. Zach Lowe could explain the game of basketball almost better than any other writer aside from a coach or a player. I still take pleasure in reading “Oral History: Malice at the Palace,” a longform account written brilliantly by Jonathan Abrams that details the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004.
Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose always had excellent chemistry on the BS Report podcast (which was never the case among the rotating cast of NBA Countdown). Grantland could provide its audience with witty humorous columns, articles concerning serious subject matter, and movie and TV reviews all under the managerial genius of Bill Simmons.
This is not to say that Bill’s passion project was perfect, they could not generate enough web traffic to justify its operating costs, they aired their podcasts and television shows (ex., Grantland Basketball Hour) on inconsistent times, and it had its fair share of controversy. In addition, I always felt as if some Grantland writers would focus too much on reacting to other pundits as opposed to just writing their own work and letting the research speak for itself. Nevertheless, Grantland was easily my favorite aspect about ESPN aside from watching the actual games. I can’t imagine an intellectual sports-fan who preferred regular ESPN to Grantland. Teading/listening to certain personalities who bloviate about tired talking points and propagate opinions discredited by research gets old when its airing on repeat, even if you change the anchor reciting the talking points.
Simply put, constantly hearing about Tim Tebow got really f****** annoying. But instead of solely bemoaning all that I loathed about ESPN (and trust me, there’s plenty), I consistently supported and praised both writers and pundits who did excellent reporting and commentary. I supported Grantland immensely.
Overtime, ESPN has created personality-brand projects similar to Grantland such as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and (formerly) Jason Whitlock’s The Undefeated (known informally as “Black Grantland”). Unfortunately, FiveThirtyEight, which examines sports, economics, and politics through statistical analysis, might be next to be cut from ESPN given its low web traffic. In addition, The Undefeated, which is supposed to examine sports as it intersects with African-American culture and race, has yet to be launched after 18 months of incompetent leadership from its former former Editor-in-Chief. Yet, President Skipper still insists that ESPN is fully committed to these projects.
When have we heard that one before?
I remember when my editor Jake Kahane approached me to write for The Daily Twenties just as the site was getting ready to launch. During our conversation, we both discussed our mutual fondness of Grantland and lamented that Bill left. Yet, I also told him about how Grantland inspired me to write about multiple subject matters that many people consider unrelated. In my case, I was (and still am) inspired to write about the intersections between politics, sports, and/or pop culture. I can say that my very first article on Roman Reigns and race was in part inspired by some of the content I read at Grantland.
Thankfully, ESPN has archived the many wonderful works the site has produced during its tenure. I would encourage everyone to look back at the archives and read some of the most brilliant sports and culture writing from the last five years. If there’s some form of everlasting life for the site, it’s in the crypts of ESPN.com, the type of storytelling embodied by ESPN’s 30-for-30 franchise, and in the minds of those who read it and were better, more interesting people for it.
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