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Culture Bully

On Bill Simmons, ESPN’s Grantland & Lobsterman

Initial discussions between myself and Culture Bully touched on an important question: What makes up “culture”? Or, to put it another way, is what we generally define as being cultural (music, film and the like) too narrow? The menu at the top of the Culture Bully site itself (go on, have a look, I won’t be offended…) refers mainly to music categories, with one option for the recent addition of “UFC/MMA” content and another for the all-encompassing “More Culture.” Still, I suppose it sounds better than “Miscellaneous.”

Basically, I was looking for a way to shoehorn in some articles about comedy and sport, areas (MMA apart) that were less well represented. The recent launch of Bill Simmons’ new project Grantland was a gift that fell into my lap. Simmons, famous as ESPN’s Sports Guy, has thrived over the last decade (!) by combining sports with popular culture. The site, backed by his ESPN bosses and the Disney Corporation, is a big deal and would deserve comment anyway, irrespective of my clumsy attempts to justify an article.

As an aside, calling it Grantland really screwed up any ideas I had about naming my own column “Rantland,” but what can you do?

As is to be expected of someone as successful as Simmons — considering his columns, podcasts, two bestsellers and nearly 1.5 million twitter followers — he’s experienced a backlash for the new website (go on, google “Bill Simmons criticism” — good times!), some of which has been considered and witty, some of which hasn’t. I have a foot in both camps as I’ve been reading his Sports Guy column since 2003 (the Grady Little/Pedro meltdown in the ALCS is the earliest column I can remember reading on publication, before finding in the archive “Is Clemens the Antichrist?”) and I’m still a fan. However, I understand some of the criticism.

As someone who dabbles in writing, maybe I’m just the forgiving type; I understand his itchy feet with regard to diversifying content when his readership would have preferred more of the same. As a writer, it’s got to remain interesting and (simplistic as it sounds) churning out columns and wondering what could’ve been is a sure-fire way of screwing up what, to the outsider, may seem as the safer, easy option.

Basically, it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. Unless you’re OJ Simpson.

Anyway, Simmons’ relationship with ESPN has been fractious at times but I think both sides appreciate each other. The Sports Guy’s popularity has been a boon for the website and has brought in younger customers. Simmons benefits from the platform it gives him, one he surely knows (and has probably investigated) would be nigh on impossible to enjoy if he ever went out on his own. ESPN has also supported projects such as the 30 for 30 documentary series and, of course, Grantland.

However, one of the disadvantages of being backed by a corporate behemoth is that one never has control, be it creative or financial. Grantland is, in part, ESPN’s way of giving Simmons a longer leash but it’s still a leash (the site name has been widely reported as the company’s decision). The live countdown on the main site was classic corporate bad taste, an obvious attempt to imply importance to what is still only just a website. I bet Bill wasn’t in on that one either. I also suspect that may be part of the reason they did it: to remind him who’s in charge.

Anyway, a couple of quick impressions on the technical side. The layout of the website is surprisingly low-key. I think they’re going for a newspaper style look (retro as gravitas?) and it comes across as a bit of a non-event (ironic, given the countdown clock that preceded it). The fact that The Triangle sports blog and Hollywood Prospectus (whatever that might be) are “coming soon” strikes me as making the site look half-baked. Surely they could have addressed this with some content? For such a basic style layout, page navigation could be quicker too.

The big talking point has been the use of side notes. Reference (no pun intended) has been made to the late post-post-modernist David Foster Wallace, a writer Simmons has mentioned in passing (again, no pun intended). As a DFW fan (told you I was a glutton for punishment), I fail to see any link between their writing, so is this fair? Probably not. I’m sure the old Sports Guy columns occasionally employed footnotes and the new Grantland format allows its writers them as another tool. I don’t mind the notes for a couple of reasons; you don’t have to read them and, if you do read them, they’re in a convenient spot (no scrolling required). If they lead to lazier writing then that’s another matter entirely, but it’s too early to comment on that. I’ll reserve judgement until the site is fully armed and operational.

One way the Grantland team may have dropped the ball with the notes is that they will make reading the columns on mobile devices trickier. The content doesn’t lend itself well to smaller screen viewing but more and more people are getting their fix on the move these days. Given that The Sports Guy made his name by being ahead of the rest of the sports media on the technology curve, this comes as a surprise. Smartphones are a dead loss with Grantland (much like they were with ESPN mobile — zing!), though I’d be interested to hear how the site comes across on a tablet device.

I don’t have a tablet device because I’m not an early adopter and, besides, I still prefer spending my money on whiskey.

Still, enough about technical quibbles: they can be fixed. What about the content? So far it’s been decent, if mixed. When I say that I mean that there will always be subject matter that just doesn’t appeal and, while people may be willing to skim over a short article on a subject outwith their interests, there is no way they will be willing to read several thousand words on it. After my initial enthusiastic attempts to read everything published on the site (in part, because I’d been starved of Sports Guy content while waiting for Grantland to go live) I’ve concluded that, not unlike the podcasts, it will be a case of picking and choosing. The quality of the writing itself is consistently good though, particularly that of Chuck Klosterman who has been great.

I’m a fan of his writing, even if I can’t shake the feeling that I’d want to fight him if we ever met. His first effort on the most remarkable basketball game we’ve never seen was engaging. Klosterman’s decision to spend the majority of the piece on setting the scene and talking to the protagonists as they are today (far removed from their shining moment) really made the piece, to the point the game itself was an afterthought. Which I suppose it is, as none of us saw it. Top class. His article on DVR versus live event viewing had interesting ideas but didn’t feel as fully formed as his first piece. The NBA half court rule column was better thought out. All were worth a read, even if, thanks to his BS Report appearances, I read them hearing his voice as narrator.

As another aside: When spell-checking this article, it was suggested that “Klosterman” be changed to “Lobsterman” — how great would it be if his name was Chuck Lobsterman?

The early front-runner on the pop-culture stakes is Andy Greenwald. “Andy Greenwald on HBO’s actor recycling program” was funny (though I fail to see why an actor would be upset at a steady stream of work with a premium cable channel). The “Super 8″ column was OK and the Game of Thrones article was very good. Incidentally, the latter two are subtitled as “Hollywood Prospectus” even though the home page still has that link as “coming soon.” One for the IT pixies to fix methinks.

Dave Eggers is someone whose writing I’ve enjoyed in the past and his Wrigley Field piece is really good. One slight problem, I can’t abide this loveable-loser-as-superiority attitude. It’s disingenuous at best. At one point, he actually writes,

“I’m sure among the thousands who flowed through the tributaries around the stadium were some who were upset the Cubs hadn’t won. I’m sure there are Cubs fans who are interested in the standings, and have been for decades.”

Really? Leaving aside the fact that speaking for other people is dodgy ground to begin with, you’re telling me that Cubs fans are so cuddly they don’t care about the result? In fact he’s suggesting that Cubs fans who feel every defeat and who may die having never seen them win the World Series are in some way missing the point? Please. I’m sure they were very happy for the White Sox in 2005 and the Cardinals in 2006. At least Klosterman can point to his upbringing in Minnesota/North Dakota as a legitimate reason for his lack of partisanship (not that I entirely buy it). Poor show.

I was surprised that I enjoyed Wright Thompson‘s article as much as I did, particularly given the self-involved first line,

“I remember the moment when I realized I wanted to write. I was at home, in the 10th grade, sick. My days and nights got mixed up, and when the house was quiet, I’d sit downstairs and read.”

Yeah? Thanks for the entirely unnecessary opening gambit about how you’ve always loved… errr… words? Maybe I’m being too harsh but the nature of the longer pieces, and being an introduction to a new readership, makes it easy to start off overly reflective. The column overcomes this false start (perhaps only a false start in my mind) and avoids becoming indulgent before eventually developing into a satisfying, evocative piece work. Plus, the guy drinks Maker’s Mark and admires the writing of the late great Bill Heinz (or is it admires Maker’s Mark and drinks in the writing of the late great Bill Heinz?), so I will continue to read him. Incidentally, every human being should read Heinz’s phenomenal collection of war writing, When We Were One.

Chris Ryan (presumably not the mad SAS guy) opened with an item on the Champions League final. It worked as an experience piece but sadly, given the corporate dominance of prestige soccer finals, it was doomed to never really give an accurate portrayal of the atmosphere at a match. I must stress that this is a result of the nature of the showpiece games, rather than any failings on the writer’s part. Corporate sponsors get a disproportionate number of tickets and, as a result, the atmosphere is nothing like what it should be. Thus Ryan was doomed to failure in his quest to see the “passion” he talked about.

Also (whisper it), Wembley Stadium is one of the most overrated experiences/atmospheres in sports world. Just so you know.

As I’m writing this, the NBA Finals are coming to a close and I’m doubtless that there will be countless columns about LeBron James which follow in the coming weeks. You know what? I’m bored of it. I’ve shied away from commenting on the basketball and baseball articles for two reasons: a lack of any expertise on the subjects and the fact that (for me) both games are infinitely more fun to play than watch. Besides, I had to cut something from this submission; it’s of Grantland-length already and, besides, I haven’t even talked about what I’ve hated yet…

…Such as Dave Jacoby’s “Reality TV Draft.”

Seriously, just fuck off. The only thing guaranteed to get me reaching for the off-switch on the podcasts is listening to this drivel. Two grown men talking about narcissistic mongoloids who don’t even have the decency to be talented at something (unlike athletes, who are talented, even if they are narcissistic mongoloids), who they watch for hours every week of their own volition. He’s a disgrace to the name Jacoby. Ironically, one of Simmons’ greatest columns was about a trip to meet the soon to be Hall of Famer and his legendary teammates.

Tom Bissell’s review of LA Noire was just too long. It was almost as if he wanted it that way to lend weight to the subject matter. I don’t play video games (you have to stop drinking to hold the controllers) but they’re a legitimate subject to cover in an analysis in contemporary popular culture. English columnist, former gaming journalist and kindred spirit (i.e.: misanthrope) Charlie Brooker did it better, sooner and in a few thousand fewer words. Bissell’s writing was fine, but I think the subject matter would’ve been better served in a shorter piece. In fact, it would’ve been an ideal candidate for the (as yet, still to be officially launched) Hollywood Prospectus.

So, the first few days of Grantland have been — the odd misfire and fixable gremlin aside — positive. The quality of the writing is of a high standard, which was the whole point, really. I hope ESPN sticks with the site, if only as an antidote to its own style everywhere else. Simmons and ESPN are the sports media establishment now, but it’s encouraging that The Sports Guy still has a desire to see quality writing and considered analysis at the forefront of this brave (but no longer new) world of digital sports media. The New York Times preview piece expressed concerns about how viable Grantland will be in the long-term but I trust that they will give it a fair shot.

Hopefully it will give Bill fresh motivation to write regular columns again. Simmons is the one writer I haven’t mentioned yet, as I feel we’ll see more from him. Hopefully we will see more great work like the aforementioned Hogs and Clemens columns, and pieces of the quality of the (still hilarious) “Idiot’s Guide to the Boston Marathon.” Just no retro diaries, please…

[This article was written by guest contributor Stephen Beagrie.]


3 Comments

    I’m interested in seeing where they go with this — didn’t follow him until a few months back, but Bill Simmons has become one of my favorite voices of commentary in sports recently.

  • Within one day of submitting this, Grantland went with…

    A retro diary.

    A Jacoby reality TV podcast.

    D’oh!

    • I started listening to the BS Report last night where they were discussing the reality TV fantasy draft. I made it as far as hearing the breakdown of their scoring system. Insufferable.

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