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Sunday
Jul172011

An unlikely media impresario

The design of Grantland is clean and spareIt's been about a month since the launch of "Grantland," a new ESPN digital magazine fronted by columnist Bill Simmons

"Grantland" is a homage to legendary early 20th century sportswriter Grantland Rice and the site's spare design harkens back to simpler times. 

It's also an outlet for Simmons to publish his vision for news and pop culture, tapping new voices that mostly are a breath of fresh air from the usual suspects, aka East Coast media and major metro sports columnists. (I say mostly because longtime Boston newspaper columnist Mike Barnacle has made at least one appearance). 

Simmons is ground zero among these fresh sports voices, building his own fan base through a sheer hustle and bravado. His backdoor route to prominance led to ESPN.com's Page 2, ESPN The Magazine and later as author of a best-selling book on the NBA. His schtick is that of an Everyman, with a dash of National Lampoon. It's hard to take him seriously sometimes -- and he's been in more than one tiff with ESPN over creative differences -- but the popularity of his book, Twitter feed and sports podcast sent a clear message to ESPN that they had a strong personal brand to build around.

Which brings us to "Grantland," a daily mix of sports news, commentary and pop Simmons is purposely chasing fewer high-dollar advertisers who are presented more as sponsors than advertisers.culture. Sports scores and daily highlights this is not, and that's a good thing. As Simmons writes in "Welcome to Grantland":

"We had four goals for this site. The first was to find writers we liked and let them do their thing. The second was to find sponsors we liked and integrate them within the site — so readers didn't have to pay for content, and also, so we didn't have to gravitate toward quantity over quality just to chase page views. The third was to take advantage of a little extra creative leeway for the right reasons and not the wrong ones.12 And the fourth was to hire the right blend of people — mostly young, mostly up-and-comers, all good people with good ideas who aren't afraid to share them."

The writing is deep and rich, has attitude and taps into that vein of "this is what people like me talk about in bars." Simmons was quick to hire Chuck Klosterman, best known as an unpredictable "gonzo-style" music journalist who has some serious sports chops, and the pair ensure the bar on coverage is high.  

I love how Grantland features footnotes to the right of the story text. Very effective, and fun.Some things have been predictable, including lists ("The 25 Least Valuable Players in the NFL," "The Sports Book Hall of Fame") and -- you knew this was coming -- a feature on "The National," an ill-fated attempt at a national sports daily 20 years ago. 

But this is a publication worth watching. Things that caught my eye include:

  • One ad per page, in line with the site's mission to integrate high-dollar sponsors rather than ads jammed everywhere. 
  • Footnotes to the right of stories. I love this idea, and think this has legs on sites everywhere (if only most content-management systems were so flexible). Remember that No. "12" including in Simmon's mission statement above? That's a link to this footnote:

"12. For instance, I dropped an F-bomb earlier and it felt pretty organic, you have to admit. If I dropped a second F-bomb to celebrate dropping the first F-bomb? Probably a little gratituous. Then again, fuck it."

Simmons is off to a good start, and has ambitious expansion plans, including sports and pop culture blogs, story comments, a sports podcast network and a quarterly publication. As Simmons writes, "You figure out what works, you figure out what doesn't work, you keep moving. That's the next nine months for us. Eventually, we will evolve into what we are. Whatever the hell that is."

The businessman in me wonders how he'll make such an eclectic mix work, but we'll be gladly hanging on for what will be an interesting ride. 

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