Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thankful for John Skipper

It has been nearly a month since the Grantland website was shut-down by ESPN president John Skipper but the continued presence of its link on my screen serves as a constant reminder of the sizable void that was suddenly created in my reading list. While some may scoff at the fact that I relied so heavily for my literary fulfillment on a website devoted to relatively short works on sports, pop culture and Game of Thrones worship, I would counter with the sage words of George Costanza who, in response to the question, "what do you read?" . . . responded, "I like Mike Lupica." Unlike Costanza, I am not unemployed and living with my parents, however, I am bald and I do have a constant need for highbrow (or even medium-brow) entertainment that can be consumed in ten minute intervals while I cram lunch down my throat, sit in a carpool line or do that other thing that seems to take men ten minutes and women thirty seconds.

When I first learned that Grantland was finished, I kind of shrugged it off as no big deal but there have been numerous occasions over the past few weeks where I've reached for the icon which still sits at #2 on my list of favorites right behind the Fantasy Golf Report (what would you expect?) and just ahead of The OnionIMDB* and the site I use to reserve tee times. (The Grantland link still works but now when you click on it, all you get is a message that says, "It was a good run" and access to the archives). Obviously I had established a connection to Grantland that was greater than I realized but why? Let's take a look.

Did someone say
Game of Thrones?
We'll begin with a brief history lifted primarily (and by "primarily" I mean "exclusively") from Wikipedia. Grantland was a sports and pop-culture blog owned and operated by ESPN. It was started in 2011 by veteran writer and sports journalist Bill Simmons who remained as editor in chief until May of 2015 at which time Skipper told the New York Times that ESPN would not be renewing Simmons' contract. This decision effectively ended Simmons' tenure at ESPN. Later in the month, Chris Connelly was announced as interim editor-in-chief. At that point, the writing was on the wall for the site because, despite all of the other high quality writers it featured, Simmons was the heart and soul of Grantland. With him out of the picture, it was on life support and Skipper was standing there like a trust fund kid with the plug in one hand and his estranged father's last will and testament in the other.

But it didn't have to be that way because in the roughly four years of its existence, Grantland grew way beyond Simmons' pet project into the online version of what Sports Illustrated*** used to be when it was worthy of a full cover-to-cover inspection every week. What the Grantland website ultimately became is not easily defined but it was kind of a clearinghouse for quality writing on topics of sports, pop culture and politics. Often these topics were blended together so you might have found yourself reading an Andy Greenwald column about how Will Ferrell emerged victorious from a NCAA Tournament style field of 64 Saturday Night Live cast members or a Jason Concepcion piece devoted to identifying the greatest fictional basketball player of all time.    

It was kind of all over the place with no parameters or boundaries so you never knew what you were going to find when you visited and that lack of clear definition may have contributed to its getting whacked. I mean what consumer wants to be constantly presented with a variety of quality options? That'd be like going to a diner with a hangover and having to decide whether you wanted a cheeseburger, french toast or a western omelet. That's just too many choices (said no one ever).

The Americans is the best show
that you're probably not watching.
In the case of Grantland, you may have checked-in for some simple NFL picks and then found yourself completely distracted by Mark Lisanti's Mad Men Power Rankings or Charles Pierce's Dean Smith obituary or Brian Phillips' deconstruction of the FIFA presidential election. I'm sure the fact that the site covered topics unrelated to ESPN programming instead of shilling strictly for the mothership also contributed to its downfall. The fat cats at Disney (which owns ESPN) could not have been pleased that Grantland was sparking interest in non-Disney programming like Breaking Bad (AMC), The Americans (FX) and Homeland (Showtime).

That's certainly how I read the termination slip that Skipper handed to the site on or about October 30th: "Effective immediately we are suspending the publication of Grantland. After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise blah blah blah . . ." (I added that last part). In other words, we're going to focus more on pimping our own shows, cheerleading for the sports we televise and promoting the daily fantasy sports companies we're in bed with while at the same time pretending to be an objective journalistic enterprise. A website devoted to quality journalism not only doesn't fit with that mission, it hinders it. 

If you question my questioning of Skipper's motives and credibility, consider that back in May after ESPN parted ways with Simmons, he said that the network was “committed to Grantland.” I guess he meant "committed" in the same way that we're all "committed" to getting more out of our gym memberships, learning a foreign language and converting all of our old home movies from VHS to digital. "Committed" my ass. The only reasons Skipper kept Grantland going for another five months were (1) he didn't want killing it to look like a spite move after splitting with Simmons and (2) ESPN has a huge stake in the NBA and one of the things that Grantland did best was cover the NBA even post-Simmons thanks to Jalen Rose, Zach Lowe, Andrew Sharp, Kirk Goldsberry, et al. Don't think that the end of Grantland coming three days after the start of the regular season was a coincidence because there is rarely anything coincidental about these types of decisions.

So now that ESPN won't be taxed by having to run a basically autonomous website, it will have more "time and energy" to focus on programming like the IQ bankrupting First Take featuring the tag team of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless who together should go by the name "The Assassins of Intelligent Discourse." It would appear that this is just another stage in the evolutionary dumbing down of the network marked by the departure of talent like Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen, Robin Roberts, Colin Cowherd, Keith Olbermann, Brian Kenny, Charlie Steiner, Harold Reynolds, etc. You may not have liked them and some of their departures weren't ESPN's fault but the fact is that they were all thoughtful and provocative and they're all gone.

Don't forget hot sideline reporters
like every parking lot attendant's
worst nightmare, Britt McHenry.
Now the faces and voices of the franchise are Mike & Mike who are great if you also get a kick out of your uncle who tells the same jokes every time you see him and then laughs way too hard at the punch lines, the over the top Dan Le Batard and shouting clowns like Smith and Bayless. Beyond them you have a crew of competent yet indistinguishable SportsCenter anchors and panel after panel of ex-players/coaches battling for thirty seconds of airtime to make a barely tangential connection between the topic of the day and some story from their past. If it wasn't for PTICollege Gameday, Mel Kiper and Scott Van Pelt, the entire network would be almost unwatchable. Thanks to the dumping of Grantland, they don't produce anything worth reading either. The classic double threat.

There was a priceless moment during ESPN's broadcast of last Monday night's Bills-Patriots game when it came time for Mike Tirico to read the promo for next week's game featuring the 3-7 Ravens without Joe Flacco against the 2-8 Browns (I wonder how much "time and energy" went into picking that inevitable turd as a Monday night game). Tirico asked Jon Gruden "do you like yourself some football?" and then chuckled before finishing "because we're going to test that next week." Of course Gruden came back with some typical Gruden bullshit ("TGB") about a smash-mouth game between two division rivals and capped it off with something that sounded like a pirate coughing-up a hairball for emphasis. And that really sums-up the current ESPN mission statement doesn't it: We're going to sell our customers a steaming pile of crap but first we're going to have one of our ex-player/coaches wrap it in shiny paper, put a big bow on it and deliver it with some flowers to hide the smell. 

So as we approach the day when we sit around the table and awkwardly testify (and sometimes perjure ourselves) about what we are thankful for, I would like to offer my most sincere thanks to John Skipper for the increasingly frivolous and superficial sports broadcasting company that he has given us. You shouldn't have Mr. Skipper. No really. You shouldn't have.        


IMDB (Internet Movie Database) is by far the most relied upon website by the FGR. It is the ultimate resource for locating basic movie quotes and cross-referencing actors with films. If you excluded pornography, I would declare it the best website ever created.

** The people have spoken and demanded a return to the kind of culturally enriching photography on which the Fantasy Golf Report was built. (Who cares if "the people" was really just four emails and three guys at the gym?) The people have been heard!  

*** I'm not exactly sure when or why I abandoned Sports Illustrated but I do remember reaching a point where I found only 10% of each issue worth reading. Some of that is attributable to the fact that a magazine that reports on events that are over a week old is always going to taste a bit stale (says the guy writing about an event that occurred over three weeks ago).

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