In case you have been living on a remote island with no internet connection or working phones, I have a rude piece of news for you: ESPN is shuttering Grantland, the Bill Simmons’ sports and pop culture site. This royally sucks for the people involved and for readers, even if after BS left ESPN for HBO some might have seen this coming. Of course, lots of sites are doing post-mortems on the “state of media.”
Here’s an irony: I wrote an article back in 2011 at TheScore’s FootyBlog on some kinda new sites, including The Classical, Grantland, and the kinda new Blizzard football magazine based in the UK. Where is that article? A few years ago, TheScore canned the FootyBlog, deleted the content, fired lots of people, and allegedly is now trying to adapt to short-form mobile media consumption. Since that article, other things have changed. The Classical is still a great launching pad for young writers, but a good chunk of the original cast have defected to better remunerated gigs elsewhere.
So, ahem, what the fuck is up? Allow me to tell you what the fuck is up.
I am about to sound petulant and needy but I had some doubts about Grantland at the start for one simple reason: the site plucked Brian Phillips, my favorite soccer writer, from his quasi-daily soccer blog The Run of Play and gave him assignments on freak sports like “tennis” and “(American) football.” I loved RoP because everyday Brian would take some odd story about the EPL from a stupid UK daily, turn that story into a lighthearted yet sarcastic take, and then leave you laughing and snorting coffee through your nose. His prose was sharp and concise,a mixture of the sensibility of Hemingway with the imagination of Faulkner and the ironical humor of Proust. Before SB Nation “Broke Madden,” Brian dominated Football Manager as Pro Vercelli.
Brian presumably got well-paid (and went to London, Vegas, Japan and Alaska), but he also exited my daily life. Articles about soccer by him at Grantland appeared, but intermittently. Still, his style of writing hints at the large divide between the two categories of ESPN readers identified by former ombudsman Rob Lipsyte. Basically, you have a small group of liberal millenials who want more than the “what just happened and may happen on the field” stories. Then you have the larger majority who view sports as an escape from reality, a place to go when life sucks and you just want to turn off your brain for awhile.
The biggest problem with these two groups is that they can’t really coexist in the same area. You can’t have a columnist write about the importance of Michael Sam to the NFL and at the same time not get angry emails from folks who hate CNBC moderators and suspect a media conspiracy backed by the homosexual illuminati. Sadly, ESPN is a business and likes profit and worries most about cable carriage fees and eyeballs, and the latter group has lots more eyeballs.
Still, Lipsyte was pretty brutal in his analysis of ESPN.
ESPN’s TV coverage of sports is pretty easily mocked, but The Magazine has invested in original reporting and longform journalism. One of the problems with Grantland, and The Classical, is internet economics: turning a buck on a free-to-see site is hard. Even as traffic goes up, more and more people use AdBlock so you don’t even get adviews, let alone clicks. Also, Google has been upping the cost of keyword ads but ironically paying less to publishers for the last few years. This has sucked most of the profit from free-to-see sites and created a race-to-the-bottom where ads have to become either more intrusive (popovers on mobile or autostart videos on PCs) or actually inside the site’s content. Both options stink.
Still, despite the demise of Grantland, other new sites have flourished. HuffingtonPost is the master of the two-minute video and first herded a group of sarcastic bloggers, and got bought by AOL. Bleacher Report relied on barely-paid college students aka writers and slideshows to climb the pagerank ladder and muscled out SI from its partnership with CNN. And, of course, today’s biggest darling is BuzzFeed, which has mastered the GIF-filled listicle to get traffic and advertiser dollars.
I know I’ve mocked the foibles of all those sites before, but here’s the reality: my faux-listicle posts from a few years ago did amazing traffic for this corner of the web. Also, all of those sites made advertising money from their bread and butter – short videos, slideshows, listicles – to then reinvest in actual journalism and legitimate writers. At least one infamous soccer scribe, let’s call him “Alec NetherTroll”, has opined that sports sites need to spit out transfer rumors and recaps to get the hits and advert bucks to then pay for real journalism. In that sense, clickbait is the dog and journalism is the tail.
I wish that wasn’t true for free-to-see sites, but at this point The Blizzard, a UK soccer magazine, is left standing four years later. Thanks to hard work, Howler Magazine continues to print quarterly soccer goodness. Pay-to-see subscriptions are viable, so it seems. My own take on all this as a blogger-turned-freelancer is that a free-to-see site which lacks the advertising legacy and connections of a newspaper or a new internet traffic schtick has a major uphill battle.
In that respect, I love Futfanatico, enjoy writing here, and readers ask me how they can help. Here are two simple ways. First, I will never allow pop-up ads or autostart videos. There is a single banner ad at the end of each article. Thus, please disable AdBlock for my site.
I know that it’s creepy to think that some multinational corporation may be stalking you and know you read my site (how embarassing!!), but here’s the deal: I personally have already been stalking you for years. I know where you live. I know your Social Security number (or foreign equivalent). I even know that song you sing in the shower. I don’t like your most recent haircut, but that’s neither here nor there. Just please disable AdBlock for my site.
Secondly, if you are hiding some terrible secret and can’t turn off AdBlock Plus, consider a dollar-a-month Kindle subscription to this blog. Between my day job, wife, kids, pet turtle, and mega-ambitious dreams for the well-being and life of said pet turtle, I will try to turn out three articles per week around here. So you are paying one dollar for twelve articles, less than ten cents per article (of which I only get a third, thanks Jeff Bezos). Alternatively, when you see me on the street, you can throw three pennies at me (or maybe a whole nickel!).
Thus, Grantland, you will be missed. Could you maybe have survived as a quarterly as opposed to a free-to-see site? Maybe. But you will always hold a place in my heart.