Grantland Is The New Sportswriting Establishment

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At the heart of Bill Simmons’ new website, Grantland, is an assumption about what sports writing ought to be.Grantland pieces are verbose. They apply narrative structure to plays, games, and seasons. They connect sports to broader cultural trends and American tendencies.

Many have argued on Twitter and elsewhere that this type of sportswriting is a great gift to the American reader.

For them, Grantland is the antithesis of what the sports blogosphere has become.

Others have criticised the writing and the site itself for lacking a coherent vision.

For them, Grantland is what happens when a collective of writers are rich and successful enough to see their half-baked ideas come to life.

But in the 24 hours since the website went live, one thing has become clear: Grantland is the new establishment in American sportswriting.

This is not to say that the Grantland style will become the dominant style of sportswriting.

And the website will most certainly not become the the most popular sports-centric site on the Internet.

But Grantland will be the template against which all other sportswriting is judged.

Due to the résumés of the people involved and the ESPN marketing machine, the site will be used to define things like “quality” in sportswriting.

In a May New York Times profile of Simmons by Jonathan Mahler, the Sports Guy described Grantland as “what Miramax was to Disney, a boutique division with more room for creativity.”

This is an easy analogy to follow.

Grantland is the Pulp Fiction to ESPN’s Herbie: Fully Loaded.

But this analogy also strongly equates Grantland to quality. It implies that ESPN represents sportswriting as it is, while Grantland represents sports writing as it ought to be.

Ironically, Simmons owes his popularity to rejecting the sportswriting orthodoxy of the early 1990s.

“From the start, Simmons wanted to write about sports the same way he talked about them with his friends, with an urgency and partisanship that he thought was missing from most sportswriting,” Mahler wrote in his profile.

Now, the old sportswriting establishment that Simmons rebelled against has either assimilated onto the Internet or given up writing completely and moved to television.

Buzz Bissinger now writes for The Daily Beast while Tony Kornheiser is a talking head.

As of yesterday, the man who calls himself “The Sports Guy” is “The Guy” in sportswriting.

He’s assembled a team of successful writers and editors. A group that, as evidenced by the Twitter explosion yesterday, will come to represent the established order of American sportswriting.

That is, until the next Simmons comes along and upsets everything we imagine sportswriting to be.

But until then, the question remains: is Grantland for better or worse?

There’s no doubt that the content on the site has value. Ultimately, it’s probably a force for good in the world of writing.

But there’s still unaddressed concerns about exactly why this content is on the Internet, as opposed to in print.

Why does Chuck Klosterman’s 4000-word feature on a 23-year-old basketball game work better on a computer screen than in a magazine or his next book?

What does Chris Ryan’s piece on the Champion’s League final do online that it can’t do on the pages of Sports Illustrated?

Mahler mentioned that renowned sportswriter David Halberstam “never felt as if he belonged on your computer screen.”

Reading Grantland, I get the same feeling.

In fact, is there any doubt that if Halberstam were still alive today, Simmons would have invited him on as a contributing editor?

For a website built and run by the guy who saw the sports blogosphere coming, Grantland feels ignorant of how readers use the Internet.

In a vacuum, the content is great. I love the depth of the pieces, and the writing style fits my subjective biases.

But it is not necessarily what sportwriting on the Internet ought to be.

It is only what the establishment thinks it ought to be.

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