Visions Of Grantland: Bill Simmons’ Lost Opportunity To Do Something New
A few Fridays ago, an anonymous Twitter user with a wonderfully delightful bio about being a sports columnist without a newsroom - Mr. Sports Journo - launched into one of the greatest multi-tweet rants in recent memory.
The topics at hand? Bill Simmons, Grantland and hero worship. Clocking in with more than 60 separate tweets, @BIGSPORTSWRITER made it from the Puffy to Garth Brooks in less moves than a good game of Kevin Bacon - both a worthy homage to the writing style that made Simmons so widely known and a brilliant critique in and of itself.
Among the comments about Simmons, his writing and a little touch on right-place-right-time luck, Journo tacks this thought to the wall regarding Grantland:
That's what was promised, right? As the news trickled in through the spring about the people Simmons was picking up for his stable of writers - big names like Chuck Klostermann and Dave Eggers, and then some of the Internet-famous best-in-blogging-class writers like Katie Baker - it started to look like an expansion franchise that had the gusto to take your best player. I wondered aloud at one point if there was going to be some sort of Franchise Tag system to prevent Simmons from stealing the best of the sports blogging world.
Then the "If you get it, you get it" name for Grantland was announced, and the stable seemed primed to jump right into the world of leading sports news sites. I waited for that first post on noon last Wednesday, and it came: "Welcome to Grantland," read the headline, the blinking lights and neon sign of a new amusement park where sports, culture and the best writers of this era would be our hosts.
The white background was sterile, yet clean. The font was the almost Wordpress-standard Georgia that looks completely commonplace these days - hell, it's the same one Gawker uses on all its sites. This was new media. I started reading Simmons' Coldplay-soundtracked introduction story of the night of the debut of Jimmy Kimmel Live. There, in a webpage framed by a handful of reader footnotes and hosted by ESPN, was the word "Fuck." I scrolled to the end, there was a period, a bio sentence and the end of the page.
This wasn't new.
One of Simmons' sounding points throughout the last 11 months since LeBron James Capital-D Decision was that he always was kind of disappointed that LBJ passed up making his own legacy in either Cleveland or Chicago or New York to join his "rival" of Dwyane Wade as a teammate. As The Sports Guy wrote last July on the afternoon before James' Greenwich event:
13. I think it's a cop-out. Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don't you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you? That's why I'm holding out hope that LeBron signs with New York or Chicago (or stays in Cleveland), because he'd be saying, "Fine. Kobe, Dwight and Melo all have their teams. Wade and Bosh have their team. The Celtics are still there. Durant's team is coming. I'm gonna go out and build MY team, and I'm kicking all their asses." That's what Jordan would have done. Hell, that's what Kobe would have done.
Simmons had signed a four-year extension with ESPN in 2007, and before that wrapped up, he extended again as announced last May. Roughly around the beginning of June 2011, Simmons had the option of being out on his own, with no one to tell him that he couldn't make a snide comment on Twitter about an ESPN personality or use expletives as adjectives on his podcast. He stayed and brought his friends to come play with him at the Worldwide Leader.
In staying with ESPN and creating Grantland, Simmons is not LBJ (if I wanted to carry it out, I'd argue that he'd be more Wade, but I'm not going to, because it isn't the right fit). What I will say, though, is that Simmons' lowercase-d decision does somewhat appear to be the easy way out. ESPN seems like a safety net where even risk - at least for him - wasn't that risky.
As Jason Fry argued in that above-linked Deadspin piece on his extension, Simmons was at the top of the sportswriting world from a numerical standpoint. Millions of followers on Twitter, a NYT top-seller, the beginning of 30-for-30: he honestly could have done things in the media world about which independent bloggers and podcasters can only dream. He may have lost some people in a new channel, but there is more than enough ground support for him to imagine that he could still be more than successful in a new venture.
Why stay with ESPN? Simmons could have down more than own a property in name. He could have built a Grantland empire anywhere away from Bristol's supervision; this wasn't a revolution in technology, after all. Yet he chose to stay under it, once ESPN handed him the central role and ability to forge the vision in Grantland.
Is it truly his to own and coddle? If so, why not try something new instead of rebuilding Page 2 on a white background?
I feel like I came into my own as a high schooler and college sportswriter during the hey day of ESPN's Page 2. I still stalk anything Paul Lukas writes thanks to the uber-specific UniWatch pieces. Every time I tell Dan Shanoff how much the original Daily Quickie influenced my own writing style, I get worried that he'll block my e-mail address.
The writing was clever, thought out. Simmons was a natural fit there, because the audience could tolerate the use of the first person pronoun and a personal story here and there. Writers have back stories, after all. This was about them, their stories, in a clever insight into the life of sports as we all watch it.
Sure, the colors were the bold red and yellow of ESPN, but, in most cases, the content - the words on the page - would have fit nicely on the white background, Georgian-texted Grantland:
Bill Simmons has been posting at Grantland in a prolific nature we haven't seen from the Sports Guy in years - lengthy articles, two of which involved a classic, "Yes, I'm from Boston" point of view on the Bruins and one that was a vintage-Simmons "Retro Diary" - along with a bunch of new "BS Report" podcasts. If the value of Grantland is lighting Simmons with fire to write a lot again, I'm all for it. But it's still nothing more than a static webpage with written columns, minimal interaction and an "I'm talking to you, not with you" mentality.
One thing I don't quite get about the different nomenclatures on Grantland is the name of different components of the site. There's "The Triangle" blog alongside other posts that come in throughout the day that don't get the "Blog Preview" heading. When you click through, except for the header image, I don't know if there's a difference.
Maybe this is a rant for a different forum, but what makes a blog different than a featured post? If something is updated regularly throughout the day and outside a traditional print or broadcast schedule, who cares what you call it? I've always tried to designate the line as the how the author views the relationship after the post is up. What I consider the biggest benchmark: a comment section where the author engages in further discussions along with the readers. Shying away from it protects the author from two things: asinine, aggressive, name-calling criticism and thoughtful, insightful engagement within the audience.
It isn't there yet, but Simmons mentioned in his first post that a comment section is coming, and I'm sure it'll be slightly more productive than the [Team Name][Year of Last Championship][Rival Team Sucks] screen names who populate article comment sections on ESPN.com. The telling point, to me, will be if and how the authors engage within those comments, because that's what is supposed to be after the period of the last sentence. A place where you can get in touch with the person who started the conversation, a place where they may engage back and keep it going.
I wonder if Grantland can capture the idea that the author is not talking at you, but completely a part of the story and willing to continue it. That's the difference between a blog and a traditional media news site or column: the idea that the byline isn't the last time you'll see the author engage in this discussion he or she started.
This isn't even new media, either.
At launch time a few weeks ago, Dan Shanoff penned this piece over at Quickish. He's absolutely right on many points, especially that Grantland will be a huge success. This sticks out to me:
*Mostly, what I appreciate is that Simmons, along with his crew and his bosses, is trying to create something new.
Whether you have a budget of millions or are bootstrapping; whether you have a huge distribution firehose or have to scrap for every unique visitor; whether sales revenue comes with turning on the lights or from the uphill battle of getting marketers' attention...
I agree with just about everything, but there is nothing here that is new. This isn't a bad thing. It's just a missed opportunity.
We're going to read Grantland, because every sports fan (and blogger) who whines about the Worldwide Leader still watches Sportscenter. ESPN has the best access in the world, and while we deal with the explosion of talking heads that scream at us, there is always that one story or breaking lead (before it gets sufficiently buried into the ground) that makes it worth following. They get the popular leagues in every walk of sport, and as long as they have that, we'll keep tuning in.
Grantland will be that, because the access, marketing, exposure and brand of ESPN now comes with the ability to throw the F-bomb around in a footnote. Critique it all we want, if Simmons ever called and said, "Hey, want to write?", we know we would. No one would be counting the number of tweets our posts got, the number of pageviews or comments. Someone, somewhere, will track the number of RSS subscribers, but it won't matter in the long run.
People will read it. Lots of people will read it. Important people, too.
But I'm guessing they would have read anything else you would have done, too.
Dave Levy is a contributor at Mediaite and SportsGrid and has never written a book. Tweet him @LevyDR and he'll respond.
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