Grantland: the best and worst from the first 30 days

We run through five gems and five duds from Bill Simmons’ new long-form sports writing site.

Reproduced with permission from BusinessInsider.

Since its inception a month ago today, has elicited the kind of polarized responses that are usually reserved for sports teams, not sports websites.

ESPN columnist Bill Simmons’ brainchild has sparked debates about everything from web design to the nature and function of long-form sportswriting.

The website is fixated on the word “quality”. And like LeBron and the Miami Heat, Simmons and Co. have had to endure heavy criticism of the site’s self-declared greatness.

In its first 30 days, Grantland has been a neither all-good or all-bad. It’s published pieces that justify the hype, but it’s also published pieces that completely lack a reason to exist.

We’ve compiled ten pieces that exemplify the best and worst of the site’s first month. The “best” are largely innovative, well-written, and purposeful. While the “bad” are largely self-indulgent, well-written, and pointless.

WORST: “Welcome to Grantland” by Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons’ welcome letter to readers should have explained why Grantland exists, what it seeks to accomplish, and how its seeks to accomplish it. Instead, Simmons explains how starting something new can be nerve-racking by giving us a story about the early days of “Jimmy Kimmel Live”. Readers are left to ask the (still unanswered) question: What is Grantland for?

Quotable: “But our staff has bonded much like Jimmy’s staff bonded eight years ago, and regardless of how this plays out, nobody can take that away.”

BEST: “My Memories of The National” by Charles P. Pierce

Grantland has taken heat from its own ombudsman for being more about sportswriting than sports. But Pierce’s ode to the defunct sports daily newspaper The National doesn’t pretend to be about sports. It is a story about a failed paper, but also a story about the constant struggle in the journalism industry between quality and economics.

Quotable: “The important thing though is not that The National folded. The important thing is that it existed at all, and that there were people willing to take the chance to be part of it.”

WORST: “‘In the Evening’” by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman’s “second-by-second analysis of Led Zeppelin’s last stand” (Grantland’s words), is incredibly difficult to follow. There’s three elements going on at once: the YouTube video of “In The Evening”, Klosterman’s long-winded analysis of the performance, and the footnotes to that analysis. Ultimately, the reader gets lost in how exactly this thing is meant to be read, and loses interest.

Quotable: “The sweat on Jimmy Page’s shirt says, ‘I am more like Patrick Ewing than most rock historians remember.’”

BEST: “Dirk’s Deutschland” by Nicholas Kulish

Kulish’s piece reads seamlessly despite containing a wide range of themes, including: post-WWII German culture, fandom, Dirk Nowitzki’s marketability, and niche sports. It’s long, but its length is appropriate to the ambitious scope of the subject matter.

The immense resources at its disposal make Grantland one of a handful of media outlets that can pay for and publish these sprawling, multi-layered pieces.

Quotable: “But the Germans, specifically West Germans like the Franconians, have the kind of complex love-hate relationship with America that comes from millions of foreign soldiers living on your soil over the course of decades.”

WORST: “So, Cricket? Maybe?” by Michael Schur and Nate DiMeo

In the site’s second week, Grantland let the guy who runs NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” write about cricket. The piece was predictably hilarious. But it was also about a two-month old cricket match and took roughly that much time to read. The point of this piece seemed to be, “look, we got the guy who runs a relevant comedy to write for us.”

Quotable: “Surely Grantland can get by without 12,000 words on cricket, right?”

BEST: “On Whiskey and Grease: Pappy Van Winkle” by Wright Thompson

Deadspin’s Tom Scocca pinpointed Thompson’s writing as everything that’s wrong with Grantland. But Thompson is so committed to his southern revivalism, and his point of view is so different from the snarky, Northeastern voice of the website in general, that his pieces work. His essay on Pappy Van Winkle bourbon has nothing to do with sports or pop culture, but it’s entertaining to read and it represents a worldview that’s otherwise not represented on the site.

Quotable: “You never know where you’re gonna find the greatest bourbon on the planet.”

WORST: “‘Still’ Life” by Brian Phillips

Phillips piece on the slow, tragic death of Roger Federer’s tennis game commits the common sin of trying too hard. The writing is fine, but the piece pushes poetry too hard, wallows in romance too often, and draws the lines between sports and life too overtly.

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Much of this would be beautiful in a dimly lit bar at an open mic night, but unfortunately, this is the internet.

Quotable: “He’s still good enough to win any tournament he enters, but he’s always surrounded by that vague sadness, the result of his no longer being free from time.”

BEST: “Tennis on the Radio” by Reeves Wiedeman

Grantland seems drawn to obscure sports stories. Sometimes these stories fall flat. But sometimes — like with Wiedeman’s piece on Wimbledon’s radio broadcasts — they are revelatory. Wiedeman’s piece is not just an interesting discussion about the mechanics of sports commentary, it’s a meditation on how tennis’ rapid pace sets it apart from other sports.

Quotable: “If both players get to the net, the announcers just give up.”

WORST: “The Math Problem” by Jonah Lehrer

Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus did a better job cutting apart Lehrer’s case against numbers than I ever could: “Lehrer dresses his argument up in a Malcolm Gladwell-like pop sociology motif, but it’s the same argument that curmudgeony old sportswriters have been using since the dawn of time: these geeks aren’t really sports fans.”

Even if you agree with the substance of Lehrer’s “J.J. Barea shows that statistics don’t work” argument, the five-paragraph discussion of automobile horsepower is forced and ridiculous.

Quotable: “Just look at horsepower: When a team of economists analyzed the features that are closely related to lifetime car satisfaction, the power of the engine was near the bottom of the list.”

BEST: “Reality Fantasy League Scorecard” by David Jacoby

The absurd Reality TV fantasy league created by Jacoby and Simmons could easily descend into self-indulgence. But, surprisingly, the league and Jacoby’s round-ups have turned into a brand of pointed cultural criticism. It’s easy to dismiss reality TV as soulless and dumb, but the fantasy league ironically embraces these elements in a way that truly highlights exactly what makes these shows pointless and dumb.

It may be ridiculous, but it’s also effective.

Quotable: “After a 70-point performance last week, Evelyn returns to show that she’s more than just an violent, assault-requesting drink-thrower.”

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