ESPN's mistake was not killing Grantland earlier
Each Sunday, ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Sports Illustrated's Jacob Feldman send out an email newsletter called “The Sunday Long Read.” With input from readers, they select the week’s best in longform journalism from a broad range of subjects, including sports. Highly recommend you subscribe.
The list includes a regular Classic pick, done each week by Politico's Jack Shafer, and Sunday, in honor of the closing of Grantland, he chose Alex French and Howie Kahn’s piece detailing the rise and fall of the fabled sports daily, The National, which ran on the site in 2011.
The story, told in first person by National staffers, was the kind of unexpected, lively long read that typified Grantland. Tony Kornheiser said of the paper: “[It] was the great and noble experiment of sports writing in America.”
How fitting for Van Natta and Feldman to choose that story, because the same now can be said of Grantland, 2011-2015.
Much like The National, Grantland dared to be different as a bold, innovative site that deftly melded sports and pop culture. Much like The National, it failed because the finances didn’t work for ESPN, whose pockets aren’t as deep these days.
In an interview with Richard Deitsch at SI.com, interim editor Chris Connelly said: “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.”
In Grantland’s case, there was another factor beyond money. When ESPN parted ways with Bill Simmons earlier in the year, ESPN president John Skipper should have pulled the plug on Grantland at the same time.
While the site was named for Grantland Rice, the most influential sportswriter in the 20th Century, it really should have been called “Simmons,” arguably the most impactful sportswriter thus far in the 21st Century. Simmons conceived the site as an extension of his ground-breaking columns and podcasts that covered the Celtics in one breath and “Mad Men” in the next.
With Simmons, Grantland developed into a niche site with a faithful following. Even though it didn’t generate a profit, Grantland’s premium content allowed ESPN and Skipper to take a pleasant ride into an intellectual, high-brow neighborhood.
However, when Simmons left, Grantland lost its voice. It seemed to be floating aimlessly without its captain, an image further enhanced by James Andrew Miller’s piece for Vanity Fair about staff discontent in the wake of Simmons’ departure. The negative vibe was getting fairly heavy.
In retrospect, Skipper was foolhardy to try to keep Grantland going. It wasn’t going to be the same site. And plus, Grantland wasn’t making any money. Ultimately, it was a simple decision for Skipper.
Somewhat lost in the reaction to Friday’s announcement—it’s always on a Friday, right?—is that ESPN isn’t abandoning long form journalism. ESPN The Magazine still features some of the best work anywhere, and ESPN.com and espnW continue to pump out in-depth stories that go way beyond the final score.
Plus, ESPN finally seems to have positive momentum for The Undefeated with the recent hiring of Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida to run the site. Presumably, some of the funds used for Grantland now will be shuttled over to The Undefeated.
Hopefully, top writers like Jonah Keri (baseball), Zach Lowe (NBA), Katie Baker (NHL), and others, will be able to make their contributions elsewhere at ESPN. If you have a minute, check out Bryan Curtis’ excellent stories on sports media on the Grantland site. He will be in high demand.
Yet it always is sad when a newspaper or a website closes for business. Grantland did make quite an impression. It says something about the quality of writing that two of Grantland’s stories were selected for the annual anthology of “The Best American Sports Writing” for 2014; Sports Illustrated was not represented in that book. The new 2015 “Best” book includes a Grantland feature from Brian Phillips about a sumo wrestler in Japan.
Now a 10,000-plus word feature on sumo wrestling might not be for everyone, but that was the point of Grantland. Readers gravitated to the site because it wasn’t conventional, and that included its coverage of mainstream sports.
In a eulogy for Grantland, Alex Shepherd and Mark Krotov wrote in New Republic: “You were never just talking about sports, which gets at the genius of the site itself—it had great sportswriters who were invested in the way that sports exist in a larger cultural and societal framework. ‘Stick to sports’ is a myth because sports aren’t separate from the world. At its best, Grantland helped show its readers that those boundaries were imagined.”
Quality, though, hardly is a guarantee for longevity in this business. When The National closed after 18 months, it ran this headline: “We had a ball.”
Now, the Grantland home page has this message to its readers: “It was a good run.”
Perhaps at some point in the future, a new site will look back at the rise and fall of Grantland, much like it did with The National. It would be a good story.