By now, pretty much every single person who knew the site Grantland has heard the news: ESPN has officially discontinued the sports and pop culture outlet, effective immediately. While this may not be a full-on shock, there is still a lot to be said about the official end of an era.
Grantland wasn't the be-all and end-all of either the sports of pop culture world. It was, however, a hub for alternative voices and niche writers to be exposed to a larger audience. They looked at new angles and brought sophisticated dialogue to topics that were oft overlooked. The fact that this site coexisted under the ESPN banner with people like Jason Whitlock, Stephen A. Smith, and Skip Bayless is a marvel unto itself.
The battle was always going to be uphill. While there is a growing chorus for the ousting of characters like Smith and Bayless, the general public eats it up. When I say general public, I do mean to say a majority public. The ESPN world seems to be ruled on the very simple ethos of "majority rules." And when I say majority, I mean to say that whoever provides them with a majority of money is their primary concern. That is sensible business principle. I'm not an economics guy and I don't have an MBA, but I understand that businesses exist to turn profits.
Clearly, when Smith blasts off in defense of athletes who have criminal issues, particularly domestic abuse issues, there is a real conversation to be had about how we as a society rationalize abuse. It goes deep and it is an ongoing issue. But in the case of Smith, it is simply another opportunity for both himself and the network that employs him to capitalize by having their names in the mouth of everyone. The message being sent is clearly that no one is held accountable and all publicity is good publicity.
To balance the cultural mores espoused by Smith, the network also employs Bayless. Bayless mostly dodges sociological landmines in favor of lobbing unfounded hot take grenades at athletes like LeBron James, et al. Bayless has been both belligerent and nonsensical in statement after statement. In fact, both he and Smith are so outlandish that they each have "highlight" reels of their "finest" moments plastered all over the internet on sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
Yet, while these two shock jocks corralled the prime time at ESPN, they still bankrolled the ever popular Grantland.
If you missed out on Grantland, there was a lot that you missed. The writers at Grantland were the first, and only, site to get me to read about their opinions on television and movies. There were pieces on music that were original and compelling. And the sports, oh the sports.
In 2015 it would be embarrassing for me to say that I didn't know who Zach Lowe, Jonah Keri, Rembert Browne, Bill Barnwell or Katie Baker are and why it matters. To some people, they may know and it still doesn't matter. Without Grantland, I'm not sure I would have ever latched on to the work that these fine writers produced. And that is just some of the talent employed. Later work by Mike L. Goodman (soccer), Jason Concepcion (mostly remember by me for his takes on his Knicks), Andrew Sharp (DC sports), and Sean McIndoe (hockey) was also great reading.
Some big names for other publications or who cut their teeth in the treacherous waters of free lance writing also graced the pages of Grantland. Steve McPherson, also known for his work for Rolling Stone, ESPN Radio, VICE Sports and Hardwood Paroxysm, and the dynamic baseball duo of Rany Jazayerli and Ben Lindbergh were always on their game, Lindbergh was familiar to me from my favorite baseball podcast, Effectively Wild, through the site he was integral to for a considerable period of time, Baseball Prospectus.
The effect here is that I just barely scratched the surface on the names and accomplishments of people affiliated with the site. Hell, after Simmons and ESPN ended their partnership, he was picked up by HBO. And not only he, but several of his editors from Grantland. And then there were the employees who went to major publications in New York City and MTV. Lots of former writers have helped launch or further their career through the posts on Grantland. And that is part of why the site was so important.
It is, of course, likely that writers like Baker, Lowe and Keri would have still made a name for themselves one way or another. But, they did it through Grantland.
Grantland was the right place at the right time.
Smart sports and pop culture writing isn't really all that common. Sure, there are the Grantlanders that I have mentioned. There are other great writers out there like the folks that are still at Baseball Prospectus, the Hardwood Paroxysm network of sites - Seth Partnow and Ian Levy are changing the game over there. The writers at CBSSports.com for the NBA are a great group of writers, basketball fans and smart asses. And yeah, there are hundreds more, including established media at SB Nation, Bleacher Report, SI.com/The Cauldron and other places.
Two factors: surplus of talent and the influx of genuinely great sports blogging has unearthed "niche" topics within the sporting world and helped revolutionize sports as we understand it. Both owe a great deal to Grantland. A lot of the writers on other sites/blogs or at other publications have been around longer, but they didn't clear the numbers or have the name recognition that they might have deserved. Grantland inspired a lot of people to pursue their writing hobby/profession. I know because that happened with me.
Like most trends I beat the curve on, it was an accident. I didn't know that Grantland was going to be cool or have great writers. I'm sure a friend mentioned the site somewhere along the way and it piqued my interest. So, late 2011, I became a regular reader. And I kept with the site until early 2015 when I needed to read less and write more. I still kept tabs, but I consumed much less by the time Simmons was officially let go by ESPN.
And isn't that just the thing. I know I'm not the only one who was inspired by Grantland. And they said the site wasn't a success, wasn't a winner. That might be true on the budget sheet, I wouldn't know. But if we want to quantify the impact on the culture of sports writing and blogging, it was huge. And it wasn't just because it was ESPN and it wasn't because they had ALL of the best writers, because that isn't true. They had a few of the better writers, but by no means did they have a monopoly on the talent. It's that they inspired, motivated, publicized and removed the intimidation of writing.
The site also made writing about sports in an intelligent way appealing on a larger scale. It was a big moment to see that people were getting paid to write about sports in a smart way. Reading about analytics and getting the rundowns on the latest formulas for finding true value in baseball, basketball, football, and soccer was illuminating.
The site also seemed attainable. Sure, that is pure foolishness to believe. But was it? There were some major talents who were piling up the posts at Grantland, but to read it from the perspective of former staff writer Shane Ryan, there were a lot of long-shots who got their start through the site. And that type of possibility is inspirational.
VICE is never going to be interested in me, nor will any other major publication. And it was also true of Grantland in 2015.
But it wasn't true of Grantland in 2011.
And that is another reason why the site was so important. It was a site that was under the banner of the biggest name in the sports entertainment industry. The writers were paid and they got to do cool stuff, meet cultural icons and attend sporting events. That is what I would be doing right now if you gave me the opportunity. Grantland could have given you that opportunity if you had what it took and were in the right place at the right time.
Grantland had all of the attractions, incentives and opportunities. It was accessible. That time is gone. I'm very much aware that I'm not a world-changing talent, but in 2014 and 2015 I've been turned down from writing for FREE from several major sites or networks of sites. There are multiple reasons why it is so difficult, but one of the biggest reasons is directly related to the visibility, success and perks of Grantland. And now, when it is nearly impossible to get in on the writing game, even on a blog in an unpaid position, the site has been killed.
There is a sadly fitting arc to the Grantland emergence and descent. Simmons found writers, though I can't tell you how all of them were sourced, and gave some people a shot that might not have found their way in otherwise. I know people who applied to write there and didn't make the cut, but they had a shot - a real shot. Today, you can't give your work away for free, no one wants it because they have enough writers and they have better copy. Thanks to the rise and fall of a site that apparently failed to bring in money, but helped carve out an entirely new writing economy.
I know that it wasn't all due to just Grantland and I've mentioned a few other places that have always done great work, but if those other sites went under tomorrow you wouldn't read about it on Deadspin, VICE, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated and my blog. That was the weight of Grantland.
And just as quickly, the plug was pulled. Most writers didn't see it coming that abruptly. Some found out through Twitter AFTER the rest of us found out, most found out during a mandatory conference phone call that happened at the same time that the internet was heralding the news. An immediate end. A lot of feelings and unfinished pieces hang in the balance - a mixed bag of endings and continuation. The writing seemed like it was on the wall, though it was still a shock.
I asked some people who I know that worked with sites like Grantland, Bleacher Report, SB Nation and other sites. The general consensus was the same: ESPN sucks, not too many Simmons fans, but the writers were enjoyed and will be missed until they find new homes.
While you're waiting for the next piece from Zach Lowe or Jonah Keri to surface, do the right thing and go read Seerat Sohi and all the other up-and-coming writing talent. Because that is what made Grantland so great; they put on the names that were up next. And now it is on to the next...
by Daniel Coughlin (@xvanwilderx)