A genial windbag named Grantland Rice was the pre-eminent voice of America’s first golden age of sports, larding his newspaper columns, radio shows, speeches, and newsreel appearances with metaphors and pseudo-classical allusions that included this famous (though typical for him) lede: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases.” He was covering a 1924 Notre Dame football game.
A century later, in 2011, flush with the profits of another golden age, ESPN created a boutique website in its enormous souk for the current pre-eminent multi-platform performer, Bill Simmons. I had bad feelings when ESPN, apparently over Simmons’s objections, called it Grantland. The new site, after all, had edgy promise; it was going to be an innovative, diverse, literary grab-bag of pop culture takes, long non-fiction, and wonky but smart sports talk. Bill Simmons called his podcast the B.S. Report.
Last Friday, ESPN announced it was chopping this proud pinkie off its ham hand, only a few months after declaring its commitment to Grantland despite having just fired Simmons. Without its beneficiary and editor-in-chief, ESPN had no need for an entertaining and prestigious niche that made little or no money. Imagine if Playboy magazine, in its ’60s “class-and-ass” period, had kept the air-brushed nudes but dumped the Updike, Gordimer, and Baldwin short stories.
The Internet reaction was mostly outrage lost in the busiest weekend of the sports calendar. The shrewd timing was vintage ESPN, an important revenue source for The Walt Disney Company (Hearst also has a 20 percent share). ESPN is currently besieged by the rising cost of buying the rights to show sports events, the declining profits in audience fees and advertising revenue as people cut their cable cords, and Disney-ordered budget cuts. Earlier last week, ESPN had laid off more than 300 employees. It was facing an annual $1.4 billion bill for NBA rights alone. Perhaps that made it too hard to justify maintaining its class act.
But Grantland represented more than just another media contraction. Sports is a stealth definer of social values, particularly among young people, and ESPN, the self-described World Wide Leader, is sports’s 24/7 purveyor on countless radio stations, TV channels and websites. How ESPN covers (or fails to cover) gay and transgender athletes, concussions, domestic abuse, gambling costumed as fantasy leagues, and e-sports, for example, will have an impact on how Americans regard the widening racial, economic, and class divides between them and the gladiatorial castes that perform for them.
Grantland’s unconstricted willingness to tackle topics that afflicted ESPN’s business partners—especially the NFL and the NBA—was a beacon in a sludge field. Fine writers like Bryan Curtis, Holly Anderson, Wesley Morris, Rembert Browne, and Molly Lambert were able to make connections between sports and pop culture that were rarely made elsewhere. Their writings turned college students on to journalism. One shining legacy of Grantland was proving that its audience would read 10,000-word stories on their screens; the so-called long form has been taken up all over the Internet.
Grantland’s generational fief was not the same as ESPN’s radio, TV, and digital audience. The mail I’ve received from the network’s consumers, over my past two years serving as ESPN’s ombudsman, may have come from two different planets.