RIP Grantland: How a Sports/Entertainment/Culture Site Changed Business Content

In the true spirit of Grantland, this is going to be long... Last Friday, ESPN announced it was suspending the publication of Grantland, the sports and pop culture site that was the brainchild of former ESPN and now HBO personality, Bill Simmons.

After the controversial Simmons was fired by ESPN for voicing his opinion (about many things, but the final straw came after statements critical of NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell), many speculated that Grantland would not exist exactly as it did under Simmons’s leadership. However, the announcement that they’d be completely scrapping the offshoot website was a shock, as was the timeframe - “effective immediately”. ESPN made the statement last Friday. By Saturday, all Grantland articles existing on the ESPN homepage were gone and the below image was on Grantland.com.

Grantland Screenshot
Grantland Screenshot

The news was sad to me personally as a fan of the site. Nearly every day since its launch in 2011, I would read the site’s articles while I ate my lunch. I realize that sounds both loyal and very sad, but hey, those days of ‘taking off for lunch’ are unfortunately a thing of the past, and something my generation has never really even seen. The working lunch, though I despise it, is something that 'just is' now. Make no mistake though, me sitting at my desk reading Mad Men Power Rankings, NBA League Pass Rankings or thoughts on the WWE's next John Cena is most certainly not working. And even after starting KYC and having more freedom to actually take a real lunch and encouraging KYCers to do so, I still would find myself spending most of my lunches with Simmons, Bill Barnwell, Juliet Litman, David Shoemaker, Mark Titus and the other Grantland writers. Some people leave the office and take a walk to clear their head and refocus. I would read Grantland.

The personal influence of Grantland went much further than something to do in between sandwich bites though. A few years ago, after a particularly debate-filled St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl (with most debate centering on if a friend could ‘walk onto’ the Philadelphia Eagles), I led a small group of friends in launching our own sports commentary/debate/analysis/joke site called The Couchletes. We had a blast, grew it some, kept it going for about a year and developed a small, but loyal following. Then we all realized we weren’t getting paid for it, had kids, jobs, companies we were launching and it died. Yet without Grantland, we may never have had that experience or inspiration to do it.

But enough about me. Grantland actually played a significant role in shifting how businesses approach content. Here's how.

Be a Real Person

Grantland’s editors and writers thought outside the box, something that was apparent from Simmons’s first handful of hires. While he brought in a few writers (or part-time writers) with bona fide credentials like Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman and Wesley Morris, many of those he hired were unknowns, looking to get a foot in the door. This influx of new talent brought new ideas, as well as new writing styles. Many of these writers didn’t worry about AP style or formal, buttoned up writing; they wrote how and what they thought. You know, how we actually talk to each other. And that's not to say the writing wasn’t good, it was. But it was different.

That casualness in writing played a big role in the loyalty the site formed. We learned about these people, not simply their thoughts on their coverage area, but about them as people. Isn’t that what we’re always striving for with corporate writing - showing personality and creating loyalty? At the time, that was not how journalists wrote. Most were very concerned with proper grammar rules so when this new crop of Grantlanders brought a casualness and saw success with it, others took notice. Eventually that led to business taking notice too.

Grantland pushed a lot of companies to think differently about their writing style as an entity. In fact, many tried to not sound like an ‘entity’ or ‘organization’, but rather humans. So when you see web copy or blog posts or any piece of corporate content that sounds more like a real person than a big business, thank Grantland.

Long-form Content is Not Dead

In 2011, we were at the very beginning of the shift in online content to smaller, quicker to consume pieces of content. The thinking was that our attention spans were shrinking. We wanted quick news bites, not a ton of analysis. That was close to the beginning of the Buzzfeed era with listicles, slideshows, memes and the like popping up as articles. Editors thought brevity was best.

Grantland blew that theory up. Instead of following this thinking, like nearly every other site was, they went drastically in the other direction. Zach Lowe was writing long - LONG - posts breaking down individual plays from NBA games. Bill Barnwell was doing the same thing with NFL plays. The pop/entertainment writers followed suit with deep analysis on a TV series episode, movie or even what Nicki Minaj wore at a Bar Mitzvah appearance.

And people loved it.

Lowe and Barnwell were giving sports fans what they were really hoping to see from in-game color commentators like Troy Aikman or Bill Walton - actual insight, things we didn’t know or realize as fans, analysis that made us respond with "duhhhh". They were blowing up sports analysis long before data became cool.

The entertainment writers were writing what we spend tons of time talking about with friends, like a thorough breakdown of a Bachelor episode in a fun, quirky way (thank you, Mark Lisanti).

What all of this showed is that we don’t have to condense all our thoughts for readers, and in the case of Lowe and Barnwell especially, it doesn’t have to be dumbed down. People want to be entertained and they want to learn something. We now see many websites and companies using long-form content in their arsenal instead of shying away from it.

The Return of the Podcast

Prior to Grantland’s launch, I felt like many companies had moved on from podcasts. The thinking was that people wanted to see something. Why do podcasts when you could do video?

Grantland embraced the podcast. Simmons had his B.S. Report and eventually several of his writers started podcasting as well. Over time, I learned that many of my friends listened to these podcasts. Then I noticed the number of podcasts from the Grantland staff kept increasing. And other news/reporting sites were launching podcasts.

After Grantland saw success with podcasts, they converted some of them to video podcasts.

I’ve noticed a few businesses now going back the podcast as a form of communicating content. If you’re entertaining in what you say, it can work.

Think Creatively About Content

I’ve probably established how creative some of the Grantland writers were based upon what I’ve written up to this point, but that creativity in style and approach was only a start. Grantland did some things that seemed not just creative, but sort of innovative.

The big one that stands out to me is the use of footnotes. Look at any post on Grantland and you’ll most likely find little red numbered boxes in the body of the post. Click on those and a pop-up footnote appears. The site implemented this technology in the last few years after including the footnotes in the right sidebar.

What’s so great about footnotes? They allow the writer to inject added personality into the post. Often times a writer will write something that leads them to a sort-of-but-not-really-related thought. Those footnotes allow the writer to include the thought without interrupting the flow of the post. Grantland writers did this quite a bit and the footnotes usually were funny. They would end up adding to the post and adding to the reader’s ability to relate to the writer.

There were a number of other creative implementations on a smaller scale from unique episodic content ideas to highly aesthetic visuals, but altogether, I know personally that some of the creative tactics Grantland tried were copied by businesses.

While it’s personally saddening that Grantland is no more (my lunches will never be the same, please give me something to fill the void), my hope is that the creativity and risk taking it spurred among business content creators doesn’t follow it in ending. Grantland had a relatively small audience, but its reach was broad and we can still continue to see its influence as we look around at what others are doing as they create content.

RIP Grantland - unless you’re not totally dead… I noticed ESPN used the word ‘suspending’ instead of something with more finality like deleting. Is there still hope?