Not everyone is cheering.

Photographer: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Grantland's Demise Leaves Us Bereft

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Dear ESPN:

You could at least have let us say goodbye.

On Friday afternoon, without a word of warning, you shuttered Grantland.  In the blink of an eye, the Internet’s best combined source of sportswriting and cultural criticism was no more.

Yes, I know, you’re suffering financial stresses, and you have to cut somewhere. I’ve tried to be loyal. I "watch Monday Night Football." I watch a lot of your college coverage. I put up with the tendency of your website to crash Safari. I even put up with the uninteresting self-starting videos that summarize the stories you set before me to read.

I thought we had a bargain. I watch your programming and peruse your site, and in return I can spend my lunch half-hour reading Grantland, home of clever writing, thoughtful use of data-driven analytics, and definitive rankings of the best jackets worn by "Star Wars" characters.

I forgave you when you got rid of Bill Simmons, the site’s founder, in May. That was a fight over money, I figured. He’s a big shot. They move around. Maybe he’s happier at HBO. And at the time, you promised -- promised! -- to keep Grantland going.

But I put you on probation when you allowed Wesley Morris, the finest film critic on the face of the earth, to jump to the New York Times.  Morris’s lively writing helped make Grantland fascinating. OK, he’s a big shot, too, and the Times is the top table. Still, a trend is a trend.

Grantland was special. I’m not sure you appreciated how innovative a website you’d allowed Simmons to create in 2010. With so much sportswriting limited to “I think this” and “My sources said that,” here was a site that not only invited long-form writing but was good at it.

Nobody else in mainstream sportswriting would have covered in such computer-aided detail the analytics of James Harden’s offense, or devoted 3,000 delightful words to the bunt strategies and uniform designs in the College Baseball World Series, while leaving lots of space for cheekily written weekly wrap-ups of even modestly popular television shows.

Intellectuals from other disciplines often crossed Grantland’s pages.  Tyler Cowen, co-proprietor of Marginal Revolution, was kind enough to post a link Friday to his contributions, including his controversial speculative essay from 2012, “What Would the End of Football Look Like?” He and co-author Kevin Grier set out a perfectly plausible scenario: The rise in public concern about concussions slowly eats away first at high school football, then at college football, before trickling up to the professional game, which winds up a niche sport, like boxing. 

The essay was the sort of thing one might expect to find, say, in the Atlantic, but I literally can think of no other sports site that would have published it. Seriously, ESPN -- you’ve assured us you’re going to stay with long-form journalism, but would you have posted the piece on your homepage? I doubt it.

And then there’s advanced sports analytics. Data-driven writing on sports used to be pretty geeky; nowadays it’s mainstream. Advanced analytics helped the Golden State Warriors win the National Basketball Association championship last spring. One unidentified Major League Baseball team is even using a Cray supercomputer to crunch the numbers.  Even the National Hockey League, the last U.S. holdout among the big-four sports, has fallen into line. MIT’s Sloan School sponsors an annual conference on analytics.

Still, for less geeky fans, the flood of acronyms -- PECOTA, DVOA, and the like -- can be overwhelming. The ungeeky might follow the New York Times’s 4th Down Bot, which announces, in real time on Twitter, whether a National Football League team should kick or go for it. But serious scholarly papers like this one may prove inaccessible. Even those who like numbers have trouble keeping up. As Grantland itself noted a year and a half ago, “the days of bedroom analytics might be numbered.”

One of the wonderful services Grantland provided was to make the incomprehensible comprehensible. From the beginning, the stories were thick with the latest data. The site drew upon the best of the various analytics-driven sites -- Football Outsiders and Baseball Prospectus or ESPN’s own formidable number-crunching department -- but the writers always integrated the analytics into well-crafted, understandable, fun-to-read stories. Geeks and non-geeks could love the columns equally -- and learn as much. This was sportswriting for grownups.

And it offered one-stop shopping. A reader didn’t have to go to one site for analysis of the per-player value of World Cup contenders, and another for detailed mid-season projections of how various top pitchers will perform. (And there were all those witty reviews of “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.”)

True, the Internet remains thick with one-stop analytics sites. And I'm sure, ESPN, that you'll remind me that one of the best of them -- Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com -- remains safely ensconced on your own homepage. I love fivethirtyeight. But with all due respect to Silver, nobody has quite managed to combine analytics with breezy, clever writing as wonderfully as Grantland’s stable of contributors.

And the writing was uniformly wonderful. There were times when reading a column at Grantland provided the same half-envious linguistic pleasure as reading the New Yorker. Track down, for example, Morris’s 2012 piece about hoodies. Or this lovely and provocative farewell to Derek Jeter, which, if not exactly John Updike on Ted Williams, certainly feels inspired by that classic and plainly has similar aspirations. (Plus analytics!)

Anyway, all of that is gone now. ESPN, you say you intend to “direct your time and energy going forward to projects” that you “believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.” I take this to mean that Grantland wasn’t making money for you.

Fair enough. You’re a business for profit, the wheel of history turneth, and the engine of creativity is destructive. My libertarian soul gets all of that. Still, for those of us who value both great writing and great sports analytics, the Web just got a little smaller.

  1. You also dumped unceremoniously Gregg Easterbook’s widely read Tuesday Morning Quarterback column. True, he wasn’t part of Grantland, and he’s presumably happier at the New York Times -- still, you did dump him.

  2.   At the end of a 3,300-word story!

  3. Well, except for having to skip over all the stories about the terrifically boring topic of electoral politics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net