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A Eulogy for Grantland

The beloved sports and pop culture website produced "ecstatic criticism"


The death of Grantland, made official today by ESPN, has been a long time coming. The site had recently seen an exodus of staffers. Writers Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin, and Chris Ryan joined their former boss Bill Simmons, who launched Grantland in 2011 back when he and ESPN were happily married, at HBO earlier this month. Film critic Wesley Morris joined the New York Times Magazine in September, while Rembert Browne’s last day at Grantland was today—he had announced earlier in October that he was joining New York. Grantland’s editorial director, Dan Fierman, joined MTV around the same time.

Nearly all of these recently departed Grantland-ers worked on the site’s pop culture side, so it’s perhaps no surprise that a senior ESPN source told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the company was “getting out of the pop culture business.” ESPN’s vice president of corporate communications, Mike Solyts, wrote on Twitter that, “All Grantland writers will have their contracts honored. The intent is to use the sportswriters on other ESPN platforms.” Grantland’s coverage of film, television, and music was always somewhat out of step with the rest of ESPN’s programming, and many predicted that the company would cut it loose after Simmons was fired this spring.

That the company would also make a move to hold on to the site’s marquee sports writers—including Zach Lowe, Jonah Keri, Katie Baker, and Bill Barnwell, among many, many others—is also no surprise, though it’s an open question how many of them will stay. Simmons’s attitude towards ESPN always suggested an attitude of defiance—hinting that the network didn’t realize what it had in Grantland—and the wholesale shuttering of Grantland certainly seems to bear that out. Today Simmons tweeted, “Watching good/kind/talented people get treated so callously = simply appalling.” It wouldn’t be shocking if many of his former staffers share that belief.

The end of Grantland is obviously no great financial loss to ESPN. From a bottom-line standpoint, the website was expensive and, frankly, underperforming. The number of unique visitors going to Grantland in February and March, as recorded by Deadspin’s Kevin Draper, were 5,303,000 and 6,003,000, respectively. Those are good numbers, but they pale in comparison to much of the traffic generated by other ESPN properties. As Deadspin’s Tom Ley noted last week, individual posts written by the company’s fantasy sports guru, Matthew Berry (who is also a paid spokesperson for DraftKings), routinely generated between four million to seven million views each.

That’s not to say that Grantland didn’t benefit ESPN’s bottom line. Grantland made its readers better fans—its coverage explained often esoteric concepts in ways that made them immediately understandable. To watch sports at a bar in 2015—especially a bar populated by educated, relatively well-off, younger people—is to hear Grantland articles endlessly parroted back to you, with or without attribution. These were people who may have been watching a game on a Wednesday night anyway, but Grantland undoubtedly made them more passionate. ESPN may be betting that these fans will find the coverage that makes them more committed ESPN viewers at places like SB Nation, Deadspin, or, hell, Bleacher Report, but that may not be a safe bet—there is no Grantland alternative waiting in the wings.

For its readers, the end of Grantland represents something close to a tragedy. The outpouring of grief on Friday afternoon was only a small indication of the site’s impact, its success, and the passionate loyalty that it invoked.

As the internet has replaced print and television as the dominant source of ... well, everything, there has been no shortage of good culture and sports writing on the internet. But it can be argued that no website of its kind more successfully took advantage of the possibilities of the internet than Grantland. Indeed, it now appears Grantland did this while managing not to overstay its welcome.

Almost nothing Grantland published could have appeared in print. The pieces were either too long, too weird, too obsessive, too silly, or, ideally, all of the above. In many cases, they couldn’t appear anywhere else for technical reasons—Grantland beautifully utilized videos, gifs, and other graphics. But that was the point: The website’s editors took its uniqueness seriously. So many websites try to replicate old forms, but this was never something Grantland did. In this sense, it was closer to the original spirit of blogs, which dominated the internet a decade ago, only to be absorbed and made diffuse.

“Internet writing”—unfairly or otherwise—is often associated with a kind of indulgence: with rapidly produced thinkpieces (hello!) or blog posts that, despite their passion, stretched to thousands of rambling words. But Grantland was careful to avoid this. Many of its pieces were long, yes, but they never seemed long, because they had things to say. And the things they had to say don’t fit elsewhere at ESPN—certainly not on the main website, nor on ESPN’s other prestige journalism platform, ESPN The Magazine.

What Grantland produced is what you could call “ecstatic criticism.” Its writers weren’t geeking out, but they were writing passionately, with both feeling and expertise—it was work done by people who were both fans and experts.

There are too many examples of Grantland’s ecstatic criticism to list here. So here’s just one: the site’s Paul Thomas Anderson Week, which coincided with the release of Inherent Vice. Here was smart, substantive criticism of the director’s oeuvre, along with a typically incisive review of the new film by Wesley Morris, alongside reflections on Anderson’s work that were at once granular and expansive. Some of this coverage might have found a home on a site run by enthusiastic fans, and some of it could have run on Film Comment. But why, Grantland asked, couldn’t one discuss backstage drama and a movie’s largest, most sweeping cultural implications? Why couldn’t you combine formalism with social context with cultural history with gossip? And if you couldn’t, why not try?

Its sports coverage showcased a similar breadth. Lowe’s columns, for example, would often break down the minutiae of NBA offenses and defenses in a way that was both instructive and expansive—you were never just talking about, say, LaMarcus Aldridge’s ability to knock down a shot at the elbow. You were talking about the evolution of the sport itself—and with that, you would also often get a healthy dose of institutional critique and pop culture. 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.

Perhaps the best way to look at Grantland is to compare it to another hugely popular, web-based culture site with a similarly sized audience—albeit one that seems a lifetime older, at least in internet time. In its early days, the music juggernaut Pitchfork was a cross between a zine and the record reviews you’d find at the back of Spin or NME. It took print forms and made them digital, and it made the transition seem natural. More than anything, it established itself as a tastemaker—a legitimizer of what its readers should or should not be listening to. In many ways, its writers were second to the numbers they assigned the albums they were reviewing.

Pitchfork ultimately evolved into something considerably more internet-organic: a content provider. To look at its collection of videos, native advertising, essays, music samples, and, yes, reviews, is to see the internet in present tense. All the accusations of selling out (the company was recently acquired by Conde Nast) seem somewhat beside the point. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the site evolving in any other way.

But Grantland didn’t really evolve—it was never really supposed to be an arbiter of taste, and it certainly never became a partner-heavy, native content-rich multimedia experience. (You could argue that, given its ownership structure and its founder, it didn’t have to.) It looked backward to old forms—it’s named after a classic sportswriter, for Chrissakes—but was never a tomb or a monument to a bygone era. (It's a special kind of irony that Pitchfork recently shuttered its own beloved, Grantland-like film site, The Dissolve.)

Also, it was fun. The internet in 2015 is full of attempts at fun—jaunty quizzes, serious articles leavened with GIFs, buzzy headlines, exclamation marks deployed promiscuously. But there’s a reason that The Onion’s sister site, Clickhole, has struck a nerve: All of the forced fun has actually produced a feeling of great, collective despair. There is nothing less fun than a corporation spending lots of money to seem fun.

Grantland, in contrast, was fun because it was smart, and because it was run by human beings. What the fuck was Rembert Browne’s long, absurdly detailed critical analysis of a photo of Nicki Minaj surrounded by dorky teenagers at a bar mitzvah if not a singular example of how much fun one could have on the internet? It was an inspired, creative bit of fun, and it was impossible to come away from the article feeling pandered to or manipulated.

Which is another way of saying that Grantland wasn’t cynical. Its editors and writers knew that there was too much at stake in sports, film, literature, music, and television to settle for resignation. Grantland was persuasive, often brutally so, but at its best (which was basically all the time), the goal seemed to be ... well, enlightenment. In that sense, Grantland fulfilled the promise of the internet—it made its readers smarter and introduced them to people and places and things they never knew about, and it did so in fun, fresh ways.

And it gave a shit. What Grantland showed was that actually caring about culture and sports was a better use of everyone’s time than dismissing it. The relative lack of ego on display meant that the bulk of the site differentiated itself from its attention-loving founder, whose ego seems to have played a role in its demise. (Grantland will loom large in Simmons’s legacy but that may not be true in reverse—none of the site’s most memorable pieces were written by Simmons and, though the spirit of the site itself grew out of his best qualities, Grantland succeeded by being decidedly un-Sports Guy-y.)

Of course, Grantland’s writers will continue to write, some for ESPN, some for others. Websites like Deadspin and SB Nation will continue to produce exceptional sports journalism online and continue to cover topics an ESPN property wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Content will continue to be produced and everyone will be more or less as happy and informed as they were before. But no new website—not even Simmons’s new project at HBO—will quite resemble Grantland. Grantland, after all, was something special—it was nothing short of an alternate path for the internet, where pageviews were less important than rigorous passion. Which may sound hokey, but, well, it was true.