For a long time, I’ve not felt the need to write, critically, about anything. Instead of collecting my thoughts, I’ve been collecting the thoughts of others and been perfectly okay with it — too many of them, maybe, to hone in on a single idea. Writing is always better when it’s open-ended and therein lies a problem: it’s also great when it’s focused. The first part hasn’t been hard. The second part has proved near impossible.
How do you both at once? I can’t claim to really know, but I’ve gotten a better sense in the last few years as I’ve been exposed to criticism of demonstrably high quality. I’m thinking of critics at the recently shuttered Grantland, specifically Wesley Morris and Andy Greenwald, both of whom (Morris, moreso) use what I’d call the New Yorker method: review one or two things, connecting them thematically both to each other and to trends at large, all while hiding the work. It can be breathtaking.
The closing of Grantland won’t kill this criticism, but it will make it harder to find, and less good. It stands to reason that our best individual critics will continue to improve, and I hope to find them, but I can’t promise that I will. The great thing about Grantland is that I knew I was in the best spot for the best thinking both about the stuff I loved and the stuff I could not give a crap about — like the best criticism, the thoughts themselves were worth the price of admission, even if the price was merely my time. Unfortunately, my time couldn’t pay for it all.
On the Internet, time is not money. Time could not save Grantland, which apparently ran a $15 million operating deficit, or in that range. As new as ESPN is, relatively speaking, it’s still an “old media” company, and it’s clear from their newly found austerity. In an era where Netflix, HBO and Amazon embracing and hoarding cult hits, ESPN has chosen to shun them, and it doesn’t seem surprising.
In this case, ESPN’s trash will be the treasure of the rest of the Internet, but it won’t be the same. I’ve long felt that the pomp of writers moving from one outlet to another has been overblown, largely because, as writers have (necessarily) become brands, they’ve just moved their content to different URLs. If Grantland was different, it was because the whole seemed somehow greater than the sum of its parts even while the parts were still individually wonderful. Their writers will surely continue to do great work, but it’ll be work likely reinforced by its own genres, drawn inward on a web that expands outward.
Now ESPN is effectively a FOX Sports clone with better television rights, fighting inward against a single enemy, and that’s the way ESPN likes it. John Skipper (effectively) fired the ineffectual Jason Whitlock, only to see him jump laterally to FOX, and it’s hard not to think Skipper saw this as a win in a binary, zero-sum game between the two relevant parties of sports media. To ESPN and FOX, as corporate entities, critical outlets like Deadspin and even The New York Times might as well not matter. ESPN is in the brands business, the other non-TV outlets in the actual analysis business, and that’s small potatoes to everyone but me and the hundreds of people I follow on Twitter who are just as saddened by the new status quo as I am. It’s likely that most of us are just complaining about this stuff to each other (and if you’re reading this, it’s definitely us) and not making an appreciable dent in any of it. We might actually make them worse. Token opposition can be good for business. “Keep it fair,” and all.
I don’t mean to be pessimistic, even as what came to be the best sports website on the Internet was forcibly shuttered due to what amounts to a petty grudge and a lack of imagination. ESPN could have made Grantland work, and they didn’t do it less because Grantland wasn’t profitable (as Chris Connelly would have you believe) than they had no interest in trying to make it so. It’s as plain as day and as dumb as sin. The post-Grantland era is a sad one, but if it’s at all hopeful, it’s that the playing field is wide open for those of us who are fighting to push our collected thoughts on the Internet, against the big bullies who would, but for an amazing four-year stretch, pretend we don’t exist. With ESPN out of the picture, the battle against the brands just got easier for any given individual. We’re always fighting uphill, and the incline just got lower, but that just makes reaching the mountaintop that much harder.