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Grantland.com born with strong writing genes, Simmons’ internet offspring to inevitably endure growing pains

Last week saw the formal unveiling of Grantland, the ESPN.com sports and pop-culture offshoot whose editor in chief is the popular ESPN columnist Bill Simmons. Grantland’s debut was hotly anticipated, a chance for sports critics and digital-media pundits to weigh in on everything from the quality of its writing to its business prospects. But few websites seem less likely to get a fair shake.
 
Why? In part, because the star writers and backers of Grantland are divisive figures in sports-media circles – perhaps inevitably, given their popularity. Then there’s our insistence that creative efforts – whether they’re magazines, websites or TV shows – be judged instantly, even though we know they will grow and change.
 
Simmons has inspired many writers to mix sports analysis of sports with a fan’s perspective (though I maintain this tradition dates back at least as far as Roger Angell), but the Sports Guy has his share of detractors who criticize his writing as pedestrian and dislike his frat-boy humor and incessant movie and TV references. Grantland’s other most prominent writer is Chuck Klosterman, another writer who navigates both sports and pop culture, and who also seems to attract as many detractors as he does supporters. (For the record, I’ve been a fan of Simmons ever since his epic “Is [Roger] Clemens the Antichrist?” takedown, and very much enjoyed Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City.)
 
Then there’s the presence of ESPN, that sports Rorschach test. As I’ve written before, ESPN is so big and so inextricably bound up with sports and the business of sports that it’s hard not to feel ambivalent about it and its influence. ESPN.com does more than any other sports-media outlet today to support long-form journalism and storytelling, and its local efforts are superb – if I had to pick a single media outlet for my hometown sports information, I’d go with ESPN New York. Yet when ESPN becomes a player and power broker in sports stories, as it often does, its influence can corrode its coverage: Witness the monstrous farce that was LeBron James’s The Decision.
 
Given the influence of Simmons, Klosterman and ESPN, a lot of opinions about Grantland are basically a referendum on any or all of them – which may go with the territory but seems both unfair and pointless. If you don’t like Bill Simmons, you probably won’t like Grantland. If ESPN’s footprint strikes you as way too big, you won’t like Grantland. But you probably knew that – and your readers did too.
 
Then there’s our need to judge new ventures as if they’re fully formed on Day One. In my years at The Wall Street Journal Online, I was responsible for several new blogs and columns – sometimes as editor, other times as writer or co-writer. The most important lesson I learned was also the simplest one: Be patient.
 
Some column formats worked, and some didn’t. Some blog features resonated with readers from the beginning, while others never connected. The early Daily Fix bore little resemblance to what the column (and later blog) became when it hit its stride later in its first year. My tech column Real Time took months to stop being a me-too business column and months more to find its theme of how technology was changing our lives. The earliest posts for Faith and Fear and Flushing, the Mets blog I co-write, fumble for a rhythm and are uncertain of their audience.
 
This is perfectly normal – even experienced writers need time to figure out what to weed and what to seed. Yet, we judge any new website, magazine or what-have-you as if it emerged from an editorial skunkworks fully formed, knowing that all such endeavors are slightly out of control experiments being rerun month-by-month and week-by-week and hour-by-hour. The Grantland of six months from now will be different in ways its creators can only guess at today.
 
Besides, even using its first two days as a thoroughly unfair sample, the embryonic Grantland strikes me as pretty good.
 
Does it all work? Of course not. As is often the case with Simmons and Klosterman, their work would be better if it were more tightly edited. (I don’t envy the editor given the task of cutting and reining in either of those guys.) The margin notes add a level of discursiveness to already discursive writing. And Grantland’s creators and backers have fired some shots at their own feet: ESPN counting down to the site’s launch did the staff no favors, and Simmons was perhaps a bit too honest in discussing his ambivalence about preparing the site for launch with the New York Times.
 
But again, this is the site’s first week. A more basic and fair test of Grantland is to read the stories and see if you’re entertained. And I was.
 
I thought Simmons’ editor’s note – in which he introduced Grantland by remembering the launch of Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show – was too long and would have benefited from another pass to give it some structure. But I still liked it: His recollections of joy and terror rang true, and he won me over by conjuring the oddities of how and what we remember, down to the absurdity of the Kimmel staff pondering what’s about to happen while at a Carl’s Jr. Similarly, while Simmons’ Thursday examination of LeBron had some pop-culture references that felt forced, the basketball analysis was razor-sharp, and his examination of King James was smart and big-hearted, culminating in what I thought was a killer line: “There’s a curse that comes with limitless potential: Everyone judges you against only that limitless potential.”
 
Similarly, Klosterman’s tale of an epic college-hoops game from more than 20 years ago was rewarding in multiple ways: its analysis of three-on-five basketball and junior college’s place in the basketball ecosystem was sharp, its evocation of Native American life was sympathetic but not cloying, and the story was full of great details that reflected thorough reporting. And Klosterman’s argument about why sports lose their urgency on DVR delay was smart in articulating how thoroughly the way we get information has changed, and what that means. It too came with a killer line: “Living in a cave isn’t enough. We’ve beaten the caves. The caves have Wi-Fi.”
 
The site is more than those two writers, of course. I thought Andy Greenwald’s examination of HBO character actors was clever, though the chart was no help. Jay Caspian King and Bill Barnwell’s views of the Heat-Mavericks series didn’t mesh, but were interesting on their own. And going back a bit, Katie Baker’s preview piece on the Knicks was pitch-perfect about everything from youthful fandom to the problems inherent in a two-star NBA team.
 
Will Grantland work long-term? We’ll see. I want to know how the sports and pop-culture writing will work together: Do Simmons fans want articles about reality TV, or did they see reality TV as an amusing reference in discussions of the Red Sox? I wonder if Simmons can make the transition from lone wolf to mentor and builder. I’ll be interested to see if he, Klosterman and the site’s other established writers continue to make Grantland a priority as other opportunities come their way, particularly as the site goes through inevitable growing pains. And I wonder if Grantland can become a brand and a destination in its own right, or if it will remain the sum of its writerly parts.
 
But the site’s first couple of days’ worth of posts brought me a good two hours of entertainment, and more than a few thoughts, comparisons and theories I know will stick in my mind. And isn’t that the whole point of writing – about sports or anything else? By that measure, Grantland already works.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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