Why has TV sports giant ESPN invested in a booksy sport and culture website?
Thursday 18 August 2011
The list of things to make print journalists feel better about the impending demise of their medium is brief, but may include free ice cream, a generous voluntary redundancy package (yeah, right) and/or the launch of a well-funded new website featuring exclusive, long-form writing composed by a cohort of peerless hacks.
Grantland.com, which went live in June, is just such a website. It's named after Grantland Rice (1880-1954), an American sportswriter widely thought to be the greatest of his breed. From this you might reasonably deduce that Grantland is a sport website, and you'd be correct, but it's more than that. As well as giving sport its cultural, intellectual and emotional dues – unlike so much of the sport blogosphere – Grantland also places sport in the context of popular culture.
Among the site's staff are writers and editors from some of America's finest magazines. It has a clean, attractive design and its contributors include the novelist Dave Eggers and the talented essayist Chuck Klosterman; the renowned blue-sky thinker Malcolm Gladwell is credited as a consulting editor. A browse through last week's offerings yields, for example, an engaging meditation on the merits of Spotify, an analysis of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and something about Cindy Crawford and the decline of the supermodel as superstar.
What can Grantland offer to a British sport fan, given that it originates in the nation that calls sport "sports"? Grantland caters to football ("soccer") fans too – Chris Ryan writes a weekly Premier League column called The Reducer. On Sunday the site published 4,000 words on Fifa corruption by Brian Phillips, who also writes The Run of Play (runofplay.com), an appealingly highbrow football blog.
Grantland's founder and public face is 41-year-old Bill Simmons, commonly thought of as the leading US sportswriter of the internet age. He was best known previously for his blog "The Sports Guy" on the ESPN website. His personalised patter suits the web snugly: an unashamed partisan, Simmons began his writing life in Boston, where he made no bones about supporting the city's basketball team, the Celtics. Now he's based in Los Angeles, he revels in his hatred of the Lakers.
Sports writers are more familiar than most with the partisanship of the web, and Grantland is written and edited from a fan's-eye-view. The first two pieces to go live on the site were Klosterman's recollections of an obscure college basketball game that he happened to watch in 1988, and Chris Jones's piece about losing his virginity the same night the Toronto Blue Jays won their first World Series (that's baseball) in 1992. It should be said that not everyone is drinking the Grantland Kool-Aid. Despite its skilful attempts to disguise it, the site is backed financially (if not editorially) by ESPN, which is a vast cultural force in the US – and not necessarily a force for good. Its six 24-hour cable channels, 46 international networks and 750-plus radio affiliates make it the sports-broadcasting establishment. As such, any suggestion that Grantland represents the voice of an esoteric outsider needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
ESPN, for example, chose Grantland's name – against Simmons's advice, who is quoted as saying he worried it was "pretentious". The New York Times recently likened Grantland's relationship with ESPN to that of Miramax films and its parent company, Disney: "a boutique division with more room for creativity."
Grantland's greatest rival for the hearts of smart sports fans is Deadspin (deadspin.com), the sports arm of the growing Gawker empire. Gawker began as online insurgents, but has arguably matured into a pillar of the new-media establishment. Deadspin is unsparing in its scepticism where ESPN (which Deadspin writers refer to as The Borg) is concerned.
Grantland is, however, a welcome arrival. Simmons says his plans include podcasts and a quarterly print edition in association with Eggers' McSweeney's publishing house. The primary goal for the site, said its founder in his mission statement, was "to find writers we liked and let them do their thing". The writers, not to mention their readers, will be glad to hear that.
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