Will Grantland set the bar for quality sportswriting?

By Steven Downes

For anyone who has ever worked on the launch of a newspaper or, more recently, a website, you will know the eyeball aching hours of effort that the editorial staff puts in for weeks, months even, on dummies, test runs and metatags before the relief of, finally, going “live”. The launch night champagne is followed by a hangover which sometimes never ends.

Today, the London Daily News, Sportsweek,, the Sunday Correspondent, The Sportsman… there were a few real stinkers among those. Somehow I managed to work on three of the better ones.

So it is interesting to discover Grantland, a new website offering sports journalism’s equivalent of one of the world’s most endangered species, long-form writing.

Included among its first features is a 10,000-word glut of schadenfreude about the $150 million bomb that was The National, a Holy Grail of a sports publication that toppled over, inevitably, under the weight of its own self-importance.  “Our editorial staff wrote a lot for the editorial staff. Instead of writing a daily newspaper, they were writing a magazine that was impressing other writers…” according to one National staffer quoted in the Grantland piece.

Was Grantland running this in its first week a deliberate piece of editorial planning to encourage the staff to better things? Or to say that they weren’t going to make the same mistakes?

Grantland is, as you might expect, exceptionally American-centric, the bulk of its first week’s offering on baseball, basketball and ice hockey, and all with good reason – it coincides with the NBA play-offs and Stanley Cup after all.

But also in the mix is a piece about football. An American publication that does not refer to the game as “soccer”: now that’s a breakthrough of itself. Though the belatedly published piece about the Champions League final does let itself down somewhat with a headline that mentions hooliganism (is that really what Americans still think of first when the global game is mentioned?) and an author who needs to have the vast edifice that is Wembley Stadium pointed out to him as he flies in to Heathrow.

It is early days yet, so we’ll watch with interest.

Grantland spells out a welcome ethos above its masthead: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game”.

These are the words of Grantland Rice, the contemporary of Damon Runyon who, in the America of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, through his elegiac writing about sporting heroes such as Bobby Jones, Knute Rockne, Babe Didrikson, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, did much to create a golden age of sport, and of sportswriting.

This 21st century Grantland should certainly be around for a while yet. It is, after all, backed by ESPN, the Disney-owned conglomerate which is eating up the sports web, owning Cricinfo and, as well as its own eponymously titled general sports site.

Some reviews of Grantland have been favourable to the point of slavering: the Bleacher Report’s baseball writer Jesse Golomb describes it as “the best thing that ESPN has ever done”.

Of Grantland’s editor, Bill Simmons, Golomb writes: “From a part-time bartending Boston sports guy, to ESPN columnist to the sports guy and the most widely read sports writer of this generation, Simmons has created an industry-redefining monster. To the old guard, he’s Dr Frankenstein. To his readership and his imitators, he reinvented the wheel.”

Coming from someone by the name of Golomb, you might expect the next line to include some sort of hissing reference to “My preciousssss”.

Others have yet to be won over quite so totally. “Grantland is what happens when a collective of writers are rich and successful enough to see their half-baked ideas come to life,” Tony Manfred, of the Business Insider, remains unconvinced.

“Grantland is the new establishment in American sportswriting. This is not to say that the Grantland style will become the dominant style of sportswriting… 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,” Manfred predicts.

Judge for yourself.

The magnum opus on The National is as good a place to start as any, with its tales of $1 million salary offers to lure writing staff, and the embracing of new technologies, including a satellite printing system which broke down every time it rained in Detroit or snowed in Manhattan.

To any journalist who has ever worked on a launch, this extract, the experience from 21 years ago of The National‘s motor racing writer Ed Hinton, will be squirmingly familiar:

I went to New York to pick up my laptop. They bought these state-of-the-art Toshibas, and they put in these really cheap modems. In the dial-up, we could not get my computer to link up into the computer at The National. I said, “This is a problem.” And the computer grunt says, “We’ll change the modems. We bought $30 modems.” The computer people they hired, frankly, I think they dragged them in off the streets.

I went in the men’s room and Van McKenzie comes in and says, “How’s it going?” And I said, “Look, we’re fucked on this sending system.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Van, I’m telling you. We couldn’t transmit a story from the newsroom to the host computer. We tried 20 times.” He said, “OK, come with me. We’ve got a meeting with Peter Price [the managing editor]. I want you to go in and tell Frank [Deford, the Editor] and Peter what you told me.”

Frank shows some serious concern, because he’s been a writer out in the field. And Peter Price — who, I think, his total claim to journalism fame is that he’d been the editor of some Upper East Side magazine, some hoity-toity, Park Avenue publication — he said, “Well that can’t be.” And I said, “Why can’t it be?” And he said, “Because my people tell me it can’t be.” He wouldn’t accept that we’d just failed.

And I said, “Well, I’m telling you it is. And I’m telling you your computer people don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” And he looks at me, and Van, who was looking out for me, says, “Eddie, don’t you have a plane to catch?” I was fuming all the way to LaGuardia.

I got home and I told my wife, “This thing’s going to fail. It ain’t going to work.” And she said, “Why? I thought you had the best writers, the best editors.” And I said, “We do. But we’ve got a terrible business side. They don’t know what they’re doing. The tech side doesn’t know what they’re doing, either. We can write and edit all we want, but if we can’t publish the damn stuff, we’re dead.”

To read the whole piece, click here.


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