Friday 30 September 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: The future of sports journalism looks dumb and dumber

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 08/11/2015 | 13:00

'In the end it (Grantland) died partly because Simmons had fallen out with ESPN, who held the purse strings at Grantland, but mainly because the money men couldn’t work out a way to wring big dollars from excellent content'
'In the end it (Grantland) died partly because Simmons had fallen out with ESPN, who held the purse strings at Grantland, but mainly because the money men couldn’t work out a way to wring big dollars from excellent content'

Journalists are always sad to see any publication, whether print or online, bite the dust. As Ogden Nash wrote, "The old men know when an old man dies." But there's something especially regrettable about the demise of Grantland, the American sports and pop culture website, which closed last week after four distinguished years.

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In the first flush of bereavement it's easy to over-rate Grantland. Personally, I found its stuff on music and movies mediocre enough while there could be an underlying pomposity which led to Deadspin, which can perhaps be seen as Grantland's unruly and snotty younger brother, gleefully yanking its chain from time to time.

But the sports coverage, the site's raison d'etre, was uniformly excellent, particularly when the man behind Grantland, the outstanding sportswriter Bill Simmons, was togging out. And I had a particular weakness for Hot Sports Takes, parodies of sensationalist sports journalism, written by a dude named Andrew Sharp.

Perhaps the most important thing about Grantland was that it represented a vote of confidence in intelligent long-form sports journalism when the prevailing view among media pundits was that the field needed to become shorter, snappier and, though they don't quite put it that way, stupider. Grantland even prompted Sports Illustrated, which had declined into Hot Sports Take territory, to make an attempt to return to past glories.

In the end it died partly because Simmons had fallen out with ESPN, who held the purse strings at Grantland, but mainly because the money men couldn't work out a way to wring big dollars from excellent content. Before long, no doubt, the Grantland closure will be held up by other money men as proof that the public don't really want the good stuff.

That's why I, and many other journalists, were tickled pink to read a piece in last week's Irish Independent sports pages by Aidan O'Hara entitled, 'Five Things We've Learned From Five Things We've Learned', a downright hilarious skewering of the inane lists which have spread through sports journalism like a peculiarly tenacious fungus. Read it and you'll never be able to take one seriously again.

Those lists are the Alco Pops of sports journalism. They're cheap and quick, grab your attention and after you've gone through a couple of them you have a vaguely queasy feeling which leaves you wondering why you indulged in the first place. And in the end they all just blur together into one sickly mess.

Perhaps the demise of Grantland really is just another indicator that sports journalism is doomed to an inexorable dumbing down. At the Web Summit, this decade's version of those Tiger era conferences where smooth operators talked up investment in foreign property and said things like , "Albania is the new Bulgaria,", one David Katz, CEO of Yahoo's sports magazine ThePostGame.Com held forth on the future of the trade. According to Katz, sports journalists now need to be, "triple threats. Great journalists, good on social media and also on video."

Always keen to sample 'great journalism', I checked out ThePostGame.Com, whose lead stories included a description of a promo video featuring jetpacks, a thing about some lad putting a Kobe Bryant figure into an old video game, a story about a rapper being unhappy about a bobblehead, an "empowering, thrilling experience," on a tennis player's Facebook site, how tea can stop you from getting a cold, an NHL fan who can't stop crying because her favourite player was nice to her and "Hey NFL fans, guess who's the drunkest?"

There's not much excuse for taking this seriously once you've attained puberty, is there? Those who peddle the idea that this is the way sports journalism needs to go remind me of Clive James's line about some people thinking that ignorance is just a different, and perhaps superior, kind of knowledge.

RIP Grantland. You were too good for this brave new world.

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