Sitting shivah for Grantland
Human beings get attached to all kinds of things. We have our favorite cafes, our favorite parks, our favorite shows, our favorite people. Take them away and something inside of us dies.
I lost my favorite website this past week, Grantland.
Grantland was a quirky, literary, sports and pop-culture site that belonged to ESPN, the giant sports network that pulled the plug. Thankfully, the archives will remain online, so Grantland junkies like myself can occasionally reminisce and revisit great stories, like a Civil War buff might revisit a famous war site.
Grantland was the brainchild of Bill Simmons, a longtime sportswriter from Boston who loved sports and pop culture in equal measure. Although he’s a diehard Celtics fan and I’m a diehard Lakers fan, I was addicted to the breezy intimacy of his sports columns. He wrote these long pieces that went off on humorous tangents, mixing deep knowledge of his subject with pop analogies and personal references. He was like an expert jazz musician, jamming away and enjoying himself, while we inhaled every note. His podcast was similarly intimate and addictive.
Simmons intuitively understood that sports and pop culture are both part of that same package we call “entertainment.” It’s not the part of our lives that worries about climate change, peace in the Middle East or paying our medical bills. It’s more like what recess was in grade school — a break from the serious and the tedious.
Although they look and feel different — sports is real-life competition with clear winners and losers; pop culture is the product of our imaginations — both can inspire us and bring us pleasure. We consume the brilliance of “Breaking Bad” just as we consume the brilliance of LeBron James.
Still, there’s a reason why you rarely see a hybrid site like Grantland. Culture junkies and sports junkies are often not the same people. It’s a lot easier to create niche sites for each crowd. Grantland broke the mold by being a hard-core site for both crowds. On its elegant and lively home page, you could see an erudite critique of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel featured right next to a 3,000-word analysis of why the Golden State Warriors offense is so lethal.
Simmons, of course, is not the “niche” type. His site was a reflection of his deep attachment to all kinds of entertainment. It’s poignant that his contribution to the world he so loves was to cover it in a way that would be entertaining in its own right. He wanted the coverage of a show to be just as quirky and delightful as the show itself.
This is where Grantland really broke the mold — redefining how a culture site entertains. Instead of settling for popular, traffic-chasing gimmicks such as top-10 lists and juicy headlines, Grantland entertained with irreverent and literary prose. It celebrated long-form features, not Twitter-happy items. It hired talented writers who brought sophistication to mass entertainment, without being elitist. It was like watching Wolfgang Puck create the world’s best hamburger. Slowly.
No subject was immune to this ethos. Here is Grantland staff writer and author Brian Phillips on the pro wrestler Andre the Giant:
“You open in rural France in the late 1950s. Andre at 12 is the size of a large adult. The driver has banned him from the school bus, so to get to class he depends on rides from a neighbor, Samuel Beckett, who has a truck. Yes, that Samuel Beckett. You can be the author of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ It’s still useful to have a truck. By his early twenties, Andre is working as a mover in Paris, toting refrigerators by himself. He gets noticed by wrestling promoters. Of course he does, a kid that size, with his crooked grin and those hazy piles of black hair.”
This kind of sophistication was a breath of fresh air from the macho swagger that colors so much of sports reporting, or the newsy gossip that colors so much of pop-culture reporting. Ironically, without resorting to the usual tricks of the trade, Grantland at its height was able to attract close to 7 million unique visitors a month.
But never mind all that. Today, Grantland is no more.
It’s clear that Simmons’s bosses at ESPN didn’t share his passion for his creation. After they decided not to renew his contract last May, it was just a matter of time before they would lose interest and shut down the site. I don't buy the excuse that the site was not profitable. A multibillion-dollar juggernaut like ESPN could certainly afford to support a site that adds so much prestige to its brand, or at least use its enormous sales leverage to make the site profitable.
My gut is that ESPN killed Grantland because the very idea of the site was too subtle for its taste. ESPN has made its billions by sticking to sports and serving it up in a generally predictable way. Given that ESPN admitted a discomfort with covering pop culture, it’s telling that they couldn’t even bring themselves to keep the sports side of Grantland, which in itself would have been a breakthrough site.
In the end, as good as Simmons was, he was probably always doomed to leave the network because the man and his ideas are anything but predictable. Now that he’s at HBO, maybe he can get me addicted again.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.