The Wasteland After Grantland

PETER DAHL, SPORTS EDITOR

The end of ESPN’s satellite site Grantland–the Internet’s most consistent source of smart, compelling, funny and meaningful content on sports and pop culture–leaves a crater in the Internet landscape that is not likely to be filled anytime soon. Hopefully, this lacuna in quality Internet-reading will eventually prompt the reformation which the sphere of Internet intellect is in desperate need.

One of the deepest roots in this problem is found in ESPN’s troubled partnership with its greatest writer, Bill Simmons, the head honcho of the Grantland project. Years of Simmons’ resistance to toe the company line finally resulted in their separation after Simmons’ scathing remarks about the NFL, an important partner of ESPN. In what is another case of ESPN’s managerial incompetence, the company felt they were better off without the volatile Bostonian. However, they seriously underestimated Simmons’ popularity, and their hubris led to the inevitable unraveling of Grantland.

Simmons embodied what made Grantland so popular and what made it a refreshing change of pace from the parent company and most of the sports-writing world. Smart, funny, edgy, enthusiastic and hip, Simmons provided the nucleus that attracted an impressive stable of writers, their foci as varied as their voices. It was a place that tolerated harsh language and irreverence as well as compassion and the confrontation of tough topics. Its writers and topics were diverse and inclusive but never politically correct or unauthentic. But, most of all, it was just brimming with high quality content.

This stands in sharp contrast with much of the Internet’s sports content. ESPN is overly commercialized and usually a step slow, and it has trouble managing talent. Bleacher Report takes style over substance and quantity over quality. FiveThirtyEight is too esoteric, lacks personalities and is not sports-centric. With most sites, creativity and innovation are generally set aside for daily buzz and pictures of hot women. Two or three excellent writers might be on staff at any given outlet, and occasionally a site like Deadspin will break a game-changing story, but anyone looking for a consistent source of great writing now has to work from a conglomerate of sites. Post-Grantland, there is nowhere to find a full palette of writing supplemented by videos and podcasts, let alone someplace that does all that for pop culture as well as sports.

It doesn’t look like Grantland’s Air Jordan’s are going to be filled anytime soon. A site would need a superstar leading the way, an eclectic group of talented and creative individuals and a rather amorphous aesthetic that somehow congeals on any given page of the site. That’s not easily duplicated. For instance, ESPN has, for years, had a plan to launch a site dealing with race and sports called The Undefeated, but the project was crippled before it could ever take off by the divisive character of its leading man, Jason Whitlock.

But the Internet needs–desperately needs–another Grantland. People are spending a copious amount of time on the Internet and are consuming (as well as sharing) article after article. The Internet is the Wild West right now, with anyone able to contribute their ideas but no one to regulate them. By that, I mean quality content is lost in a sea of stylish home pages, outrageous headlines, reposted stories and lists. Lots of lists. But that wasn’t a problem with Grantland. A story was worth considering as long as it had the approval stamp of the red ‘G’ logo.

The Internet is already humanity’s largest repository of ideas, but it has the ability to also be the most useful. The key will be establishing more stamps of approval like the Grantland logo. There must be the rise of an Internet intelligentsia, a “weberatti,” if you will. Talented and reliable writers and editors need to become more visible and recognizable as they form the Internet equivalent of a creative salon, where any person added to the site and any linked article endorsed by its members can be deemed as a worthy addition to the vast canon of the Internet. A few of these exist today, but the concept can be greatly expanded, maybe particularly in the world of sports writing. Sites full of daily buzz need more substance, sites of advanced analytics and philosophies need to be more accessible and, overall, there needs to be more space for creativity.

Grantland gave people a gift that elevated readers’ opportunity to consume quality Internet content on sports and pop culture. Its subject material was and is too important and too fun to be followed haphazardly. With Grantland, Simmons and ESPN caught lightning in a bottle and it changed the Internet landscape.

Let’s hope lightning strikes twice. I have grandiose ideas for the future of the Internet, but I’d settle, for now, with just one more Grantland.

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