Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On Grantland and Bill Simmons

Because the only news in the sports world that I currently care about is the further destruction of Columbus and analyzing why, exactly, Lebron James goes 3-11 in an NBA Finals game, I have a bit of extra time to commit to talking about things like the new Bill Simmons ESPN mothership site Grantland. Free Darko (RIP) founder Bethlehem Shoals spoke more eloquently on the topic on his Tumblr than I will be able to:
My main gripes, other than being robbed of a Major Cultural Event, are more esoteric...

I’m wary of, as a reader, being coerced into a holding pattern, or being told that I’m a feral prick if I seek to draw any conclusions before the appointed date (Launch 2?). Grantland isn’t process, or becoming; it’s a major market initiative by a company flush with cash, and whether as art or commerce, should be able to at least make its intentions clear (no, telling isn’t the same as showing). I respect its right to grow and find itself organically. At the same time, at some point its identity has to become fair game. That’s not just about would-be critics, either. It’s about keeping the loyalists awake and charged, too.

My biggest complaint might not have anything to do with the site at all, but rather Simmons, and his existence in the sports journalism community as a Regular Guy. Simmons is a writer/blogger that made it big through non-traditional means and has tried to maintain an air of other-ness throughout his career--whether it's fighting with the big wigs at ESPN or feigning contrarian attitudes. So he talks about his dad and Coldplay and A Bunch of Dudes. But in the intro to Grantland, he talks about having been in Jimmy Kimmel's Entourage (yes, in reference to that Entourage) since 2002 and spending his days hanging out with sports stars, actors, and living the life of a certified celebrity.

At some point, Simmons has to give up this everyman shtick, and by all standards, he couldn't rightfully lay claim to it for almost a decade now. And so the idea that Grantland is a site by writers (read: bloggers) for writers--ostensibly what they're selling here--feels hollow. What is Bill Simmons anymore besides another entrenched columnist at the largest sports media outlet on the planet? What realistically can Simmons write anymore that isn't ESPN approved? He said "fuck" in the intro, and I'd bet ESPN would pare that out of a column appearing on their front page, but otherwise, what can Simmons offer anymore that's dramatically different from anything he can write on the platform he already has at ESPN? He hangs out with celebrities, has courtside tickets to the Clippers (say what you will about the Clippers, this is still not a luxury that your up-and-coming writer can fathom), and is so far removed from anything resembling a blogger that Grantland appears to be additional ad space for ESPN to sell.

But Simmons may just be the name on the marquee to attract an audience. The site is being billed as a forum for emerging writers to discuss sports and popular culture, but to what end? On the site, there are several pieces: one about HBO's reuse of actors, a Chuck Klosterman essay about watching a JUCO basketball team win a game in which they played 3-on-5, and an essay about Donnie Walsh, among others. Simmons has become a pivotal sports writer because he's Bill Simmons and people know what they're going to get. But right now, Grantland is a hodgepodge of ideas and essays, all unrelated except for the fact that they're written by people who are good at writing.

It's not difficult to recruit writers when your topic constraints are "write about sports and/or pop culture", especially when you have the financial resources of ESPN. There's backlash-to-the-backlash already floating around the internet that "Writers think this is stupid but they'd all love to write there", to which any reasonable person says, No shit. Grantland is an open forum for a lucky few writers to be paid exorbitant amounts of money to write about the topics they're probably already writing about. The dirty secret about the writing community: Lots of us don't like one another but are forced to work together. It happens, especially in an industry that requires you to aggressively state and defend your (probably extreme) opinions.

But I digress. People read MGoBlog for one of a few reasons (Michigan fan, Random Big Ten fan, college football fan), much like people read this blog for only a few reasons. The same goes for websites like Pitchfork or ESPN or CNN: you have some sort of interest in the topic and return to the site to find relevant information. But when the parameters of a site's scope are, basically, "anything you come in contact with on a daily basis", you run into a problem. I could write endlessly about pop culture and sports. I have essays in mind on just about every topic you could imagine, but no one would want to read a blog like that unless they were my dear friends or found my writing especially captivating.

And this is why the site is both forced to make itself About the Writers and why they have to hire the Chuck Klostermans of the industry: if the content is too disperse and no one cares about the authors, the site will fail. So when Andy Greenwald writes, in apropos of nothing, a piece about HBO, we're told to care because he's someone we're supposed to care about, not because what he wrote has any relevance to the site, current popular culture, or sports. With good writers--the likes of which Grantland has falling out of its ears--this process is sure to produce a smattering of really incredible material, but it's also always going to feel a little bit like the disjointed site preview that launched a few months ago (Why was this written and why should I care?).

Grantland isn't a bad idea so much as it's not an idea at all. If the objective is to let writers write, that can be done more effectively and with greater purpose elsewhere. But when you get a cultural force like ESPN behind it, the site becomes a magnet for advertising and big-name stars to get their work out to a public that may or may not be familiar with it. And while getting people reading more compelling writing on a consistent basis is a virtuous concept, Grantland is always going to feel a little too scattered to get anyone to care consistently. But if you bring in enough stars (and enough of their devoted audiences), that gives ESPN the site metrics they'll need to sell ads and keep it alive.


Post a Comment