An Oral History of Grantland
On October 30, 2015, ESPN announced that it was shuttering Grantland.com after over four years of publishing its unique brand of sports and pop culture commentary. This is the story of the making and eventual unmaking of one of the most influential online publications.
Grantland.com launched in June of 2011, a partnership between veteran sports columnist Bill Simmons, his cadre of writers, and ESPN.
Bill Simmons (Grantland founder and former Editor-in-Chief): I founded Grantland in 2011, because at the time I was very poor and trying to eke out a living for myself and my family writing 6,000 word columns comparing members of the Patriots to individual seasons of MTV’s The Challenge, and then posting those recaps in 140 character bits to Twitter. My buddy House told me that the hot new field of online publishing was basically a license to print money, so I gathered up all of the great writers I knew and founded Grantland.
Since then we went on to amass fame and fortune, and the rest may seem like history. But to this day I’m haunted with regret that I never could quite nail how Julian Edelman was the Johnny Bananas of the Belichick era.
Sean Fennessey (Grantland editor): Bill came to me and said “we’re making a website.” So we went up to ESPN and asked them for $500 billion to start our website.
They said, “That’s a lot of money for a vanity website. What will it be about?”
“Sports and pop culture,” we said.
“That’s a little broad. But you’ll focus on easily digestible, highly shareable content that can be quickly churned out, right?”
“No.” we said. “But do you like podcasts?”
“Not really,” they said, “but here’s $1 billion dollars, plus a domain name and Jalen Rose for free. Now go and make the best publication in the world, we’ve got your backs.”
Rembert Browne (staff writer): I couldn’t believe it when Bill called me up and asked if I wanted to join Grantland. Here I was, just some kid with a passion for brackets pitting Outkast songs against one another, being asked to create thousands of brackets a day for 18-to-34 year olds demanding just that sort of smart and original content.
Charles Pierce (staff writer): At the time I joined, I was working for the Boston Globe as an old white man who was pissed off about things happening in Boston. Working for Grantland presented an opportunity to take being a pissed off old white man to a whole new level.
Chuck Klosterman (contributing editor): I held out on joining for 127 days, until Bill finally caved and agreed to allow footnotes in articles.
Brian Phillips (staff writer): Bill told me “Forget word counts. Forget crummy editors. Forget Super Bowl XLII. None of those things will exist here.”
I was sold.
Zach Lowe (staff writer, basketball): It was a nerd’s paradise. I once saw Kirk Goldsberry openly crying after Bill Barnwell wiped the floor with his ass in Settlers.
Despite lower traffic numbers than ESPN’s expected output, the site continued to grow its reputation and following by producing extensive, thoughtful pieces on sports and pop culture.
Simmons: I look back and can’t believe all of the incredible work we put out thanks to our amazing cast of writers.
Bill Barnwell (staff writer, football): It was truly amazing to have the opportunity to write with such depth and not have to waste any energy guessing what would bring in ad revenue. One time, fifteen or twenty of us actually had a competition to see who could get the fewest page views on a single article. I was sure I had it in the bag when I wrote 28,000 words ranking every long snapper since the 1970 merger. But then Steven [Hyden] wrote a feature on this guy on YouTube who does exclusively Eddie Money covers. I think the guy had 12 subscribers. It was brilliant. In fact, Simmons was so impressed with how unappealing Hyden’s article was to the general public that he made that day an annual work holiday. Every year, the office was closed on February 19th to commemorate Hyden’s wildly unsuccessful piece about that YouTuber. But the funniest part of the competition was how sure Brian Phillips was that he had won it. From day one, he was bragging incessantly about his idea for the worst piece ever. He said it was going to be a longread about a trip to Japan to see a sumo wrestling tournament. He couldn’t even keep a straight face talking about it, he was so tickled by his own idea. Then he published it, and he came over to everyone’s desk individually to see their response. He’d be like, “Did you read it yet? Hilarious, right?” and we were like, “Brian, this is legitimately the best thing anyone’s written in the last decade.” He was absolutely crestfallen. I mean, seriously, he was really devastated about that for a while. He eventually came to terms with it, though. Fuck! I’m rambling again. I’m sorry.
Chris Ryan (editor: One day, a bunch of us got together and thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we created a radio talkshow, but made it available in digital format for automatic download?” So we invented the podcast, and had the #1 podcast in the country for the rest of Grantland’s run. “Watch The Thrones.” “The B.S. Report.” “Serial.” “The Right Reasons.” — all of those were recorded in Andy [Greenwald]’s 6th floor walkup in Brooklyn.
Juliet Litman (editor): Most people don’t know this about me, but I was once retweeted by three different Bachelor contestants in one day.
Andrew Sharp (staff editor): I’ll never forget the day that we got Rick Fox to come on our podcast. Rick Fox! The three-time champion, Holes-cameo appearing, living legend Rick Fox himself. Wow. It was just… incredible.
Alex Pappademas (staff writer): We had legitimately the best writing staff. The best basketball writer. The best football writer. The best baseball writer. The best movie writer. The best TV writer. We had so much talent to go around that we created a fake byline called “netw3rk” and took turns each week pretending to be him.
Steven Hyden (staff writer): A lot of people credit us with introducing The Strokes to a wider audience thanks to our music writing. I don’t want to say that we were the publication for rock journalism, but let’s just say that I may or may not have gone on a cocaine-fueled rampage through the Disney studios lot with the touring band for Eric Church.
Shea Serrano (staff writer): It was like playing pickup basketball with your crew, and you and your guys are just running the other squad off the floor. You don’t even need to see Jay [Caspian Kang] making the back door cut to know that he’ll be wide open for the deeply empathetic 5,000 word story on professional bowling.
Browne: I got to go to Ferguson. I got to interview Obama. I got to make a bracket determining the greatest second banana of all time. Those are some of my most important memories — they’re what I’ll tell my children about.
But despite its successes, Grantland ran into problems along the way, and Simmons frequently clashed with ESPN ownership over traffic, revenue, and Simmons’ own persona.
Simmons: Things weren’t always easy at Grantland though. No matter how many brilliant writers you stick in a room, there are always personal and professional challenges you need to overcome. For instance, one time Wesley Morris and I almost came to blows after I heard he didn’t love Boogie Nights.
Robert Mays (staff writer): One time I forgot what Defensive DVOA was, and Bill Barnwell made fun of me for three straight weeks.
Molly Lambert (staff writer): Bill made it a point of pride never to judge the site by paying too much mind to things like pageviews or ad revenue or operating expenses or anything like that. We thought it was great, but apparently ESPN wasn’t too happy when they found out that we had used our entire March budget to buy replica Bad News Bears uniforms for our company softball team.
David Jacoby (editor): The stress really started to wear on Bill. One time he lashed out at Jalen [Rose], calling him the Screech of the 2003 Chicago Bulls.
Jalen Rose (analyst): That one hurt. But the guy was an over-worked wreck. One time [ESPN President John] Skipper had Bill come in to talk about traffic numbers, and Bill shat out a perfect replica of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft onto his desk. I was floored — no matter how rough things got, you could never take Bill’s genius and passion away from him.
Simmons: It felt like… you know that scene in Varsity Blues, where Lance takes those shots to keep playing because of his coach? Well in this case I felt like I was Mox and Lance. And ESPN was Coach Kilmer. And Rembert was the chick in the whip cream bikini. And Grantland was the whip cream bikini.
Andy Greenwald (staff writer): People like to think that being a TV writer must be so easy. Those people have never had to spend three whole days each week coming up with things to write or talk about for True Detective Season 2.
Holly Anderson (staff writer): Bill’s gambling really started to take a wear on the site too. He once texted me non-stop for 48 hours asking me if I wanted to go in on a three-team tease with him, House, and some guy called “Cousin Sal.” He wouldn’t stop, no matter how many times I told him that I didn’t care that I was getting points for the Panthers at home. It was madness.
Amos Barshad (staff writer): I’m like 95% certain that Grantland’s praise was directly correlated to the cancelling of Friday Night Lights. We had something beautiful, and we ruined it with our adoration.
Lowe: One time I had to go cover a Sixers-Bucks Tuesday night game. It was the worst experience of my life. I nearly quit over it, but [Bill] convinced me to stay by letting me write and direct a 30-for-30 about Tim Duncan’s LARPing.
Many media pundits pointed to Bill Simmons’ suspension in the fall of 2014 as the beginning of the end for Grantland, after Simmons dared the company to reprimand him for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar.” Then, in May of 2015, Simmons found out via Twitter that he was fired from the website he built.
Simmons: I guess that I should have seen the writing on the wall after I went onto my podcast and said those things about Goodell. I replay it every day in my mind, and I can’t stop asking myself, “what if I hadn’t revealed Goodell’s deepest darkest secrets on the hot new digital medium of podcasting that we invented? What if we hadn’t unleashed this technology out into the world?
Sharp: We could see it all start to unravel after that suspension for Bill’s comments about Goodell.
Jason Concepcion (staff writer): Bill went onto several different Boston-area radio stations and declared that he had proof in his hands that Roger Goodell had personally founded ISIS following a closed-door meeting with Bill Cosby and the ghost of Richard Nixon. ESPN didn’t take that all too well.
Simmons: Nobody has perpetrated worse crimes in America and gotten away with it than Goodell. Cosby and Nixon included. I hate him.
Mark Lisanti (editor): You could feel a change take over the office. People started talking in hushed tones, there was a real drain on all the writing, and Alex [Pappademas] developed an unhealthy obsession with the 2002 Sacramento Kings.
Ryan: Juliet [Litman] tried to start a twitter emoji battle with Skip Bayless, it got that bad.
Rafe Bartholomew (editor): It didn’t help things either after DCFS called us for the 26th time regarding Bill [Barnwell]’s photo for his author bio. I couldn’t believe it — here we were, the prestige website for the biggest name in sports media, and Barnwell was still using the image he took on a Canon for his Myspace profile back in 2005.
On October 30, 2015, ESPN pulled the plug, shuttering Grantland after over four years of publishing.
Simmons: You know, it always felt like my baby, and that I was the father figure watching this site grow up and do all sorts of incredible things as it discovered itself. And it was so sad to see how ESPN treated the site and its staff after I left — I don’t want to point fingers here, but I thought it was totally inappropriate that corporate came down from Bristol and made everybody watch as they got Benny the Bull to repeatedly punch [Zach] Lowe in the nads.
Mays: At the end of the day, I’m proud that I can look back on my binders and binders full of print-outs of every article posted on the site and say that nobody in human history ever wrote more words about offensive linemen as I did for a major sports publication.
Browne: It was hands-down the best place I ever worked. You can’t imagine the creative energy that filled the room up. Nobody had better fantasy basketball team names than our office league. Nobody.
Jonah Keri (staff writer): I’m just happy that, if only for a little while, I was able to make some people pay attention to stats in baseball.
Morris: It was such a pleasure to come in to work and feel like you were driven by people who were such talented writers and even better people. Except Mark Harris. That assclown wouldn’t know Fatal Attraction from American Gigolo.
Mallory Rubin (editor): It was the greatest damn website I was ever a part of. Whatever I do next will just feel like some lame knockoff of what we accomplished.
Hyden: Rod Stewart’s 1990s discography is criminally underappreciated.
Phillips: Drive home on the 405. Look up. Look down. Turn on the radio. Turn off the radio. Look to the palm trees swaying effervescently in the gentle breeze.
Who knew what would ever be there tomorrow?
And it hit me that that was exactly the point of Grantland, why it was so important. When everything can vanish, you make a sport out of not vanishing. You submit yourself to the forces that could erase you from the earth, and then you turn up at the end, not erased. I’d had it wrong before, when I’d seen the writers as saints on the cusp of a religious vision. It was the opposite. Visionaries are trying to escape into something larger. Grantland’s staff was heading into something larger that they have to escape. They were going into the vision to show that they can come out of it again. The vision will be beautiful, and it will try to kill you. And (oh by the way) that doesn’t have to be the last word. That’s why you go to the end of the world — to see whether you’re still there.