"The paper quickly began its operations, grabbing all of the talent money could buy." That's from the intro to an article that ran early on in Grantland's online publishing tenure this year, chronicling the rise and fall of early-'90s sports tabloid the National Sports Daily.
"Frank Deford, a writer who had achieved legendary status by the age of 50, was made editor-in-chief; columnists and a feature staff were gathered, poached, and lured from everywhere; every beat in the athletic spectrum was covered, charted, and ranked, from golf to professional wrestling."
Change a few names around, and you might as well be talking about Grantland itself. The six-month-old Web site, a boutique branch of ESPN run by superstar columnist — and former "Boston Sports Guy" — Bill Simmons, throws a hockey bag's worth of writing talent at just about any sports topic under the sun. Simmons has roped in national print veterans like Michael Weinreb, pop-culture addicts like Chuck Klosterman, and literary sluggers like Dave Eggers to flesh out an A-Team-style masthead of nerdy badasses.
The National folded after 18 months, and many didn't give Grantland much better odds. The Atlantic said the model would never work, that so many high-paid writers would sink the ship. Established sports blogs went at it with a vengeance — Deadspin still maintains a page logging every factual error they can find on the site (and there are many). A hipper site called the Classical Kickstarted itself into existence in September vowing coverage of "sports and other things" — ranging from critical theory to punk rock to a 25,000-word story on baseball Hall of Famer Pete Alexander.
If you're even remotely like me, however — a lifelong cynic to whom the sports pages bring to mind bros ripping through cases of Natty Ice and dorm room shut-ins that can't turn off Madden — you might wonder why any of this matters. After all, when the Dead Kennedys sang "The future of America is in their hands," in "Jock-O-Rama," they weren't celebrating.
Yet while Simmons — a one-time prep-school kid, Holy Cross grad, and Boston Phoenix freelancer who sometimes leads off with hypotheticals about buddies who run hedge funds — would never pass a punk purity test, his fledgling Internet writing has helped spawn a wide world of sports writing that's far from the beef patrol. Instead of the brawny call-outs that have fueled traditional sports columns, his is long-form narrative journalism, sugared with pop-culture obsessions and halting, second-person blog-speak to help the stats go down.
READ MORE: Check out a selection of Bill Simmons's Phoenix archives at thePhoenix.com/simmons.
And if the new quarterly print edition of Grantland — issued through McSweeney's, of all places — is any indication, then yes: Simmons, in his past 10 years of columns, podcasts, 30 for 30 production credits, and even a brief stint writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, has helped a lot of us admit that we like sports.
FROM WALLACE TO TEEN WOLF
Novelist Jay Caspian Kang was one of the first writers that Simmons called on to join as an editor. "It was as much of a shock as anything," says Kang, calling right after a meeting at the site's office in Los Angeles. A graduate of Bowdoin College with an MFA from Columbia, Kang says he basically grew up reading Simmons.