If you read about sports on the internet at all (and if you’re here, I supposed to a certain extent you do), you’ve probably heard a thing our two about a little startup site called Grantland. I cannot pretend that I haven’t been guardedly excited about Grantland’s launch for months now. The brainchild of the most popular sports columnist in America, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, Grantland positions itself as the anti-blog, an online magazine featuring long-form pieces on sports and pop culture. The site also features contributions from Chuck Klosterman, who along with Simmons has spent the last decade throwing fastballs right down the plate of my generation.
While Simmons, Klosterman, Wright Thompson, and many of Grantland’s contributors, for that matter, are wildly popular, they are also criticized and deconstructed more than anyone writing about J.J. Barea ever should be. They write very seriously about things that do not matter, and for that, they stir envy in every person like me in America. Let there be no mistaking: I, and most people who share their opinions about sports in the form of writing, would walk into oncoming traffic for a spot on Grantland’s roster.
This is why I have also been legitimately nervous about Grantland’s launch. A web site I have no financial or professional stake in may fail or flourish, and ultimately, signal something significant about how we talk about sports in writing. Now, with such a high-profile roster, one would wonder how it couldn’t succeed. Well, there is plenty of valid criticism of the writers that make up the heart of Grantland’s order. If someone were to say, make a parody site of Grantland, it would not be hard to find people who could ape Simmons’ and Klosterman’s styles so pitch-perfect, it would make one question how you can enjoy something so easily mimicked. Heck, at this point the pair have been so prolific on Simmons’ podcast, The B.S. Report, that you could easily do a companion mock-podcast with dead-on impersonations. (I don’t suggest anyone waste time to do this, but I’m available to play either part if you must).
There was a time, at least in my mind, when it was “cool” to read Klosterman’s essays and Simmons’ column (I think this was the first half of the ’00s). It was certainly not Mitch Albom or Bob Ryan’s way of thinking about sports or culture. Now, as pervasive as they both are (Simmons especially), referring to something you read from or heard the Sports Guy say is decidedly “mainstream.” Bloggers and fans like myself are only about to nitpick and poke holes in the content these writers produce because we read them so voraciously. At a certain point, successful content-creators in any field become so popular that a backlash by those who initially supported it becomes inevitable. I can call my friends and leave voicemails as Bill Simmons so accurately because a) my friends and I consume his content regularly and b) it’s easy to make fun of Bill Simmons. This backlash, to a lesser extent, struck Simmons’ buddy Malcolm Gladwell after the release of his last book. So, in other words,the very people that are going to supply Grantland with its pageviews (i.e. me) are also fully aware of its principals’ shortcomings. (This is eerily similar to being a Washington Capitals fan).
I come to terms with all this by simply acknowledging that they are strong writers who are seasoned enough to know their strengths and weaknesses. They may be formulaic to some extent, but they all know what works for them. They each have a “lane” (a metaphor Simmons often uses to evoke specialization), and they drive in their lanes relentlessly. Even though I don’t care about the Boston Red Sox or the N.B.A. in general, I don’t mind when Bill Simmons writes 6,000 words on those topics, because it’s very clear that he cares deeply about those things.
Another source of apprehension was the site’s inevitable first brush with Charm City. I love Baltimore dearly, and I feel like a defensive soccer mom when I hear people say mean things about it. There’s really nothing worse than having two friends, and one of them thinks the other sucks (and, is this case, is full of crime and boredom). Whenever a non-local personage I admire has any contact with Baltimore, I wince like I’m about to witness my dog attack a small child. “Please don’t say anything bad,” I think. “Take the high road, just be polite.” With such a strong contingent of writers I admire on Grantland, I knew it was only a matter of time before one of them crossed paths with B-more.
Grantland grows daily, providing a home for essays in a world of short attention spans now conditioned to get sports opinion via Twitter. It’s noble work they are doing over there, and I look forward to the site’s development (and hopefully a name change; I doubt Grantland Rice would ever devote this many words to Blake Lively’s breasts). With some fine-tuning, it could be a beacon for the kind of writing that is drying up as the magazine and newspaper industries contract.
Whether we admit it or not, we all wait anxiously, for more good content, Boston-centric articles I can ignore, for hope in the future of the sports essay, and of course remain vigilant for any ill-intentioned references to Baltimore.
To paraphrase Simmons: “yup, these are your readers.”
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore, works for a sports-oriented non-profit, and writes “The Win Column” for BaltimoreSportsReport. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore.