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Grantland at Two: What Has Bill Simmons Built?

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Grantland transfixed media types when it started in 2011. What the site was did not so much matter. It was what the site could represent in a broader media landscape. Some saw Grantland as a bulwark against shorter, traffic-dictated content. Some saw it as a beacon for how other sites could move forward. Some, both “young” and “up-and-coming,” thought payment, recognition and autonomy sounded like a sweet deal. Some, as is the case with any Simmons endeavor, were simply jealous.

Once Grantland launched, many felt compelled to react (or perhaps overreact). The title was pretentious, discordant and silly. The content was too white, too male and too navel gazing. There were typos and oversights. We all had a good chortle when they forgot to renew the domain. We also wondered why, in good conscience, someone could hire noted fabricator and plagiarist Mike Barnicle to relay information to the public. We’re still wondering that.

Grantland plodded along amidst the early animosity. Knives dulled and eventually retracted. Certain hires helped the site’s popularity. The Twitteratti deemed it okay to link to their content. Days after the site’s second birthday, with it now walking and talking and considering shedding its diaper, it seems the appropriate time to reflect on what the site has become.

Does Grantland’s business model work?

Grantland sought to “prove long-form has a place online.” Has it done so? Sort of. It is hard to fashion a general principle from Grantland. The site was not a startup. ESPN affiliation offered it immediate credibility and promotion. ESPN coffers offered it cash to launch and to operate at a loss if need be. ESPN’s existing Internet infrastructure offered it multiple traffic fire hoses, including plum placement on ESPN.com and Bill Simmons’ twitter feed (now over 2 million followers). This project was more than a domain name and a dream. The floor was much higher.

The site’s birth conditions shaped its development. Grantland is utopian and expensive. The masthead has 10 people listed as some form of editor. Another 18 are listed as staff writers. There are additional, high-profile contributors. We presume there are more uncredited grunts doing technical support. Even presuming they are paid at standard rates, that is substantial overhead. Most Internet outfits are skeletal. Grantland is not just fleshed. It is bloated.

Grantland is not optimized to pay for itself with traffic. Writers are afforded time to produce thoughtful content, only thoughtful content. The site publishes a relatively small amount, only Monday through Friday. Grantland is an Internet place where weekends still exist.

How is the site’s traffic? According to Comscore, Grantland has hovered around or a bit above two million unique visitors for the past 12 months. Their number for May, after a recent uptick, was 2,474,000 unique visitors, up 26 percent from May 2012. For some perspective, that is 76 percent of the traffic generated by Deadspin over the same month. Is that traffic enough to make the site self-sufficient financially? The answer in January was “it depends on how you do the accounting” and ESPN “doesn’t discuss financials.”

We suspect ESPN would argue important ad metrics are shifting from raw traffic to audience engagement. The company declined a request to provide data that would have buttressed that point.

Grantland, denied the WWL teat, probably would not survive, at least as constituted. But that does not prove long form content does not work on the Internet. Long-form, writerly content was seldom, if ever self-sustaining before the Internet. The New Yorker still prints because it is “The New Yorker.” The magazine was notably unprofitable when magazines were booming. Even before print, scholars relied on independent wealth or, more likely, someone else’s independent wealth to furnish expensive libraries and disseminate their work. The Internet has not changed the climate, so much as it has intensified and quantified it.

Something else balances the cost of Grantland’s quality. That’s true anywhere. Some outlets have a TV network. Some outlets have a search engine. Some outlets have an army of free (or relatively free) writers churning out content. One outlet has created a 24-hour body paint emporium. Websites that are just websites must balance quality content with content tailored to drive traffic (Hi, Paulina Gretzky!). Grantland is no different. It can just construct a Chinese wall from the rest of ESPN to keep the brand pristine.

Long-form content will work on the Internet, as it has throughout history, with someone or something else subsidizing it.

What is Grantland? 

Before assessing Grantland’s content. We must consider the breadth of what Simmons and ESPN have attempted. Grantland wants the best writers, producing only top quality, original writing. The site wants to be an arbiter across two very broad categories in sports and pop culture. It wants to do so through multiple types of Internet media, not to mention publishing leather-bound quarterlies. It’s ambitious. Some may argue it’s too ambitious.

Bill Simmons would not respond to specific inquiries from Big Lead Sports, but did offer the following statement.

“I’d rather let our work speak for itself – we’ve built something over the last 2 years that means a lot to everyone involved. Our staff works their asses off and our writers genuinely care about the site and the fantastic work they’re doing. We’re going to keep innovating and cranking out quality stuff in Year 3 – this is a big year for us.”

ESPN President John Skipper said the site should be producing “interesting long-form journalism” and finding “new voices.” Grantland has done that, in its own way.

The content is, indeed, long. Just the “blog posts” can blow past 2,000 words. Even Tolstoy thinks they may be rambling a bit. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing inherently right about it either. Long-form can be articulate, fully-formed analysis. It can also be torturing straw men while meandering toward a mundane, self-evident point. 

Does Grantland practice journalism? That depends how one defines it. Broadly, yes, Grantland writers produce content for a media site. In a more refined, professional sense, no. The site neither breaks news nor aspires to do so. Of the 125 pieces of content Grantland published from May 29 through June 4, just one, Shane Ryan’s “Arvind’s Last Stand,” captured a scene with a live human not writing the piece.

Grantland is not the site you go to for the definitive profile of Phish after 30 years. It’s the site you go to for one man’s meditation about how Phish fits within an artificial construct of great rock music. That’s fine, provided the content proves interesting or entertaining. That, we found out, is a personal question.

Grantland hits many different niches. That could be technical, math-oriented sports writing. That could be snarky reality TV commentary. That could, we’re sure for at least one person, be soup. If you’re under 35, literate and appreciate some form of culture between Infinite Jest dissertations and amateur pornography, Grantland should address something you find interesting.

This breadth allows Grantland to appeal to a broad audience. We can see this in the sites which, according to ComScore, are most likely to share readers with Grantland. Simmons’ venture attracts soccer fans (ESPNFC), discerning sports fans (Deadspin), pop culture obsessives (AVClub, Pitchfork, Vulture), baseball stat dorks (Baseball Reference), smart people inclined to waste time (Sporcle, Mental Floss) and, oddly enough, Canadians (National Post).

The trouble is the content can seem too disparate. Almost everyone will find something they like. Almost everyone will also find things they find uninteresting or even repellent. Everyone from condescending Brooklyn snobs to spreadsheet ostriches may read the site. But they aren’t necessarily reading all of it or establishing a connection with it. The “Grantland reader” is an advertising amalgam. It doesn’t really exist.

We polled a number of media members on their usage of the site. Most visited on occasion, when directed by social media to topics that fit their specific interest. Those interests varied. Some enjoyed the pop culture content more than the sports. Some enjoyed the sports and ignored the pop culture. Some, such as Jason Whitlock, came simply for Simmons. “I’m more of a Simmons reader than a Grantland reader,” he told Big Lead Sports in an interview.

Grantland has intimated it will resolve the breadth of the site by building up its in house sports and pop culture brands. A “Triangle” or “Hollywood Prospectus” reader may be more tangible and more inclined to visit a more focused site. This could point the way for similar projects from other outlets. Peter King’s targeted, football-only site in the works for SI may prove a better route forward than nebulous “we’re going to have writers who are going to write” sites.

Does Grantland foster “up-and-coming” writers? Yes. As the site has become more established, it has ditched the “starting rotation” and “bullpen” concepts and become far less star-driven. Simmons, branching into TV, writes less than once per week now. Klosterman contributes written content about once a month.

Many of the staff writers would qualify as both “young” and “up and coming.” Considering the poaching that took place from established media outlets (not to mention Goldman Sachs), we can presume everyone contributing is earning enough to obtain food and adequate shelter. That’s not a claim many traditional print outlets can make. Besides the pay, there is the exposure. If just one percent of Simmons’ twitter base heeds his endorsement of you, that’s an additional 20,000 followers.

Whether the site fosters their writing itself may be another matter. Grantland has too many brains at work not to produce intriguing work on a fairly frequent basis. Compared to its progenitors (later stage Page 2) and attempted cousins (whatever Playbook was) there really is no comparison. That said, whether it is velvet glove editing, ESPN having its finger in the soup or just a pervasive internal bubble, the site is doing little that feels bold or provocative.

The site has no “Whitlock” who will challenge conventions or piss anyone off. It’s edgy, but only because it can say “fuck” or probe the societal impact of Jon Hamm’s bulge. The content is long and most often well-written, but it can read like a formulaic blog. Grantland, with its resources and autonomy, could be the site to reinvent a classic vein of American literature during a time of societal change. But we suspect it may get lost in the sidebar.

It seems apropos to sum up Grantland with a stretched sports metaphor. We’d compare the site to recent vintage Florida State football. The depth and quality of writing talent is impressive. The site meets every basic metric to be declared “successful.” We just keep waiting for something transcendent to materialize. It hasn’t yet.

Grantland remains a work in progress. But that’s what it should be. Long-form or not, that’s the only way to find and to maintain a place online.

 

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