Grantland, the much-loved and relatively little-read longform sports journalism site that began as a vanity project for founding editor Bill Simmons and grew into one of the Web’s best venues for longform journalism, is gone. Five months after Simmons left ESPN on very bad terms, the Worldwide Leader announced Friday afternoon that the site would suspend publication, effective immediately.
ESPN did not bother explaining its decision to shutter the site, but one can speculate as to why. Grantland’s traffic famously lagged behind that of competitors like Deadspin. The site’s focus on longform esoterica didn’t really fit in with ESPN.com’s primary focus on fantasy sports advice and event-based analysis. Perhaps most relevant is that, for ESPN, Grantland was always first and foremost a means of keeping Bill Simmons happy, and presumably the network no longer felt obliged to spend lots of money just to placate an ex-employee—especially given that the company is laying off about 300 employees.
And now the site is dead, with no forewarning or fanfare, its final cover story a fungible and forgettable NFL Week 8 preview. (It is worth noting that the site might still be around if it had done more of that sort of stuff, writing quickly off of the news or viral moments.) But Grantland rarely took the expected angle, and that’s why I liked it. That is probably also why it ultimately failed. In the coming days there will be no shortage of stories about what went wrong at Grantland and why, and about the things the site didn’t do right (for a particularly infamous example, see the publication’s terrible decision to write and publish a story about a transgender golf club designer who ended up committing suicide after the author threatened to out her). For now, though, I’d like to just take some time to celebrate Grantland by revisiting some of its most memorable stories, and pour one out for a website that epitomized all that online journalism could be—and, in the end, all that it couldn’t.
“Spoelstra in the Philippines,” by Rafe Bartholomew, Oct. 6, 2011: Grantland staff editor Rafe Bartholomew is an expert on basketball in the Philippines. Most other news sites would have said, “Who cares about basketball in the Philippines?” and forced Bartholomew to focus on more mainstream stories. But one of the best things about Grantland was the site’s readiness to let its writers pursue their own interests, no matter how obscure. This 2011 Bartholomew piece about Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s off-season trip to the Philippines is a great example of how Grantland could, at its best, combine the arcane with the mainstream, to great effect.
“The Malice at the Palace,” by Jonathan Abrams, March 20, 2012: Though oral histories are something of an online-journalism cliché at this point, Grantland helped popularize the format, and at times executed it better than any other site. Abrams’ riveting oral history of the night that Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest ran into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit and attacked an unruly fan—“the scariest moment in NBA history,” as the subhed puts it—is an exemplar of the genre.
“The Book of Luis,” by Brian Phillips, Aug. 16, 2013: Phillips’ playful and stylized story about Premier League villain Luis Suárez—a talented jackass prone to biting his opponents—was Grantland at its simultaneous best and worst. The story was entirely inaccessible to non–Premier League fans, but it was fantastically executed, had a wonderful premise, and was very enjoyable if you care about soccer. And even if you didn’t care about soccer, Phillips is a good enough writer that you’d probably still find it an enjoyable read even if you didn’t quite understand it.
“Wu-Tang, Atomically,” by Amos Barshad, March 19, 2014: I never liked Grantland’s entertainment coverage as much as its sports coverage, primarily because the site seemed to specialize in recaps of TV shows I don’t watch and profiles of celebrities I don’t care about. But occasionally Grantland would put out an arts piece that stood with the best of its sports coverage, like this outstanding 2014 history of the Wu-Tang Clan, arguably the greatest hip-hop act of all time. As a Wu obsessive, I loved this piece; as a fan of great reporting, I loved it even more.
Also, while I’m on the topic of Grantland’s coverage of the Wu-Tang Clan, I feel obliged to mention this Nov. 8, 2013, roundtable in which nine Grantland contributors wrote about their favorite Wu-Tang members. Hua Hsu apparently drew the short straw, because he wrote about U-God, who is no one’s favorite Wu-Tang member. But Hsu rose to the challenge and wrote what might be my favorite passage the site ever ran:
About a decade ago I was assigned a Wu-Tang feature for a skateboarding magazine, and the only member its label gave me to interview was U-God. The whole time he just sighed into the phone. The sky seemed to turn grayer and grayer each time he spoke. He tried as passive-aggressively as possible to tell me what he truly thought about the rest of the guys, who were somewhere else busy not being interviewed for a skateboarding magazine. He kept telling me about RZA’s iron lung and weird fetishes. When I told him I liked him on “Careful (Click Click),” he brightened up, belly-laughed and shouted “THAT’S ’CAUSE YOU’S A MURDERER-ASS N----,” which cracked me up. A few days later, the magazine folded.
“The Wet Stuff,” by Bryan Curtis, September 2014: I could have filled this entire list with stories by Bryan Curtis, the ex-Slate staffer who wrote brilliantly for Grantland about sports media and many other things. But this 2014 piece about water park entrepreneur Jeff Henry and his quest to build the world’s tallest, fastest water slides might be my favorite—especially the section about bombastic water park pioneer George Millay, whose landmark park Wet ’n Wild “stood as a corrective to ’70s hedonism.”
“The Fatalist,” by Louisa Thomas, Feb. 5, 2015: An absorbing, deeply reported profile of Irina Pavlova, the Russian émigré who is Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s woman-on-the-ground in the United States, and, as a result, is “one of the most powerful women in professional sports.” Thomas wasn’t the site’s most prolific writer, but everything she wrote was worth reading.
“Porntopia,” by Molly Lambert, March 10, 2015: Lambert’s amazing piece about her trip to the 2015 Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas was an incisive look at the state of the adult-film industry in 2015, a meditation on changing pornographic mores in the Internet age, and a delightful piece of first-person reporting.
“2015 NBA Trade Value, Part 2: The Temple of Doom,” by Bill Simmons, Feb. 25, 2015: Just kidding.
“ ‘Yankees Suck! Yankees Suck!’ ” by Amos Barshad, Sept. 1, 2015: Though Grantland’s hit rate definitely dropped in the months preceding its demise, the site still published some really great stories in the wake of Simmons’ departure. Barshad’s story about the Boston hardcore kids who made a small fortune hawking “Yankees Suck” T-shirts outside of Fenway Park in the early 2000s was one of the best pieces the site ever ran—starting with a guy getting shot through the mouth in a drug robbery gone bad, and somehow just getting better from there.
These are just the stories that I remembered off the top of my head this afternoon, and I have no doubt that at some point tonight I will remember eight or nine more great stories and curse myself for not including them here. Grantland’s most obvious legacy is its archive of wonderful work, and now that the site won’t be producing any new content, I can only hope that the old stuff remains accessible. On Twitter Friday afternoon, CNN media reporter Brian Stelter reported that “All Grantland content will be archived on ESPN.com.” ESPN had better follow through on this promise. It's a shame that ESPN decided to kill the site. But it would be an absolute sin to kill its archives, too.