‘I’ve never met an editor like him’: Bryan Curtis on Bill Simmons and Grantland

ESPNs sport and pop culture website Grantland went down in a blaze of glory in 2015, but its creator Bill Simmons is back with The Ringer and a new TV show

Who killed Grantland? Its a question that sustained a new and seemingly inexhaustible sub-genre of sports media in past year, and was the source of much conjecture and conspiracy theory among hardcore fans of ESPNs late, much-loved sport and pop culture website when it was shuttered by its financiers in September 2015.

The way former Grantlander Bryan Curtis tells it, it was a pretty simple equation: one day the sites founder and most popular writer Bill Simmons was an employee of ESPN, the next day he wasnt. Created especially for Simmons by the sports media giant, Grantland was on borrowed time the minute its editor-in-chief was effectively sacked (It was business, said ESPN president John Skipper) after doubling down in his criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, also commonly known as the media empires most important client.

Media critics would soon feast on Grantlands abrupt closure, but Curtis learned the websites fate as he stood in the maternity ward of a hospital celebrating the birth of his daughter Stella. Check your email, read a text from Simmons short-lived replacement editor Chis Connelly. ESPN created Grantland for Bill and when Bill no longer worked for ESPN there was no Grantland, says Curtis, who is in Melbourne for the Sports Writers Festival. Its pretty much as simple as that.

Still, theres some irony in the fact that a website whose devotees came to prize the array of distinctive, diverse, and sublimely-talented voices on offer was in the end so obviously tied to the downward trajectory of one man. It assumed a larger identity, Curtis says of the sites cast of star writers.

Before Grantlands launch in 2011, there had actually been dire predictions that Simmons would merely curate a kind of journalistic mutual-appreciation society where everybody wrote and thought like him (a bunch of people doing a Bill impression, is how Curtis terms it), but his hand-picked staff were encouraged from the outset to pursue subjects and modes of expression that appealed most to them.

By the end it had its own identity, says Curtis, who lists Brian Phillips, Katie Baker, David Shoemaker and Shea Serrano as writing talents who flourished and attracted significant followings on the strength of their original approaches to sport and pop culture. Bill uniquely saw that something like this could work. He either directly hired or had a hand in hiring everybody who worked there. So I think that particular, wonderful, magical combination is totally Bill.

Another success of Grantland, Curtis says, was that from the outset its creators had a no asshole hiring policy (Ive worked at places that have an all-asshole policy, he laughs), so there were no tortured geniuses or divas in the building, just a hive of creative energy, ambition and positivity.

Bill was the ultimate players coach, says Curtis. He wanted you to succeed on your own terms and find the best version of you. He pushed you to achieve that. The first question we were asked was, What are you interested in? and Whats the piece you really want to write? and then you did that. That doesnt happen everywhere. Most publications say What is the piece that we would like you to write that you would most like to write?

And the second question was always, What form would you like to write it in? Oral history? A reported piece? A sort of column that comes out of some strange and previously not accessed part of your brain? It was all at our fingertips. We could deliver it any way we wanted to as long as it was really good.

Perhaps misunderstood by some of its critics, Simmons new HBO-funded website, The Ringer, retains much of Grantlands DNA (former Grantlanders Serrano, Shoemaker, Baker, Juliet Litman, Chris Ryan and editor Sean Fennessey have reunited with their old boss) but it cant lean on ESPNs infrastructure in the way Grantland could; theres no nuts and bolts game recaps, nor straighter, more traditional and news reportage on the site to give writers the same time and creative breathing space.

At the Ringer, if a big-time boxing bout finishes late on Saturday night, it is written about immediately, not the following Monday, as was often the case at Grantland. Much of the content is shorter, reacting more quickly to the news cycle. In other words, there are slightly fewer sprawling Japanese gonzo epics loosely related to sumo wrestling, slightly more instantaneous opinion on topics as varied as Bob Dylans Nobel Prize win or Russell Westbrooks latest fashion travesty, and yet the new site is still home for fictitious oral histories of Space Jam and deep dives into the eerie prescience of Hank Scorpio, a one-episode Simpsons character from 20 years ago.

Grantland creator Bill Simmons and NBA great Charles Barkley on the set of Simmons new HBO TV show, Any Given Wednesday. Photograph: Jordan Althaus/HBO

One of Bills great attributes as an editor is that hes willing to entertain so many ideas and so many different forms of journalism, says Curtis. Hes not as worried about making something fit a schematic, like a lot of editors are. Ive never met an editor who is quite like him.

For his signature writing style which first came to worldwide attention in the early 2000s and spawned legions of imitators Simmons is generally given his dues, as he is for the pioneering BS Report podcasts, which made an art form of the kind of unscripted sport and pop culture talk so often murdered by bad sports radio shows.

Yet for all the change he wrought in sportswriting and all the writers hes dragged along in his slipstream through Grantland and his new multimedia ventures Simmons-bashing is still a growth industry. There have been some teething problems. HBO are getting neither ratings nor critical plaudits for The Ringers accompanying TV project, Any Given Wednesday, which still needs to time to establish itself; breathing space that critics are less inclined than ever to grant such an outsized sports media figure.

At the very least, HBO have got themselves an explosive talent and a tastemaker. He is inseparable from Grantland and hes inseparable from The Ringer, Curtis says. To use his political capital to give us a chance to do great stuff and change our careers…its really, really amazing to me.

Will such a playground for more leisurely, long-form creativity as Grantland exist again, or was ESPNs loss-leading boutique site just a hell of a lot of fun while it lasted? Could lightning strike twice? I hope it does, says Curtis.

He points to the trend for other influential brand name journalists Peter King at Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski are two he he mentions going to media companies and asking for their own curated sites as proof its the old hands of US sportswriting who are creating openings for new and vibrant voices in the digital age, perhaps unexpectedly so.

You never would have predicted that Grantland would have existed, Curtis says. I think we live in a writer-driven world now rather than a publication-driven world, so the writers are the so-called brands, who can create something like [Grantland].

Still, someone needs to fund it. Putting aside Simmons efforts to give a platform to so many new and exciting voices in writing, Grantland couldnt and wouldnt have existed without ESPNs deep reservoirs of cash. Im really grateful that ESPN did that, Curtis admits of the magazine-style deadlines and open vistas Grantland offered. When it was happening it seemed like a dream job. The job was so great that I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach for four years that it would come to an end at some point, he laughs. It was an incredible investment in all senses of the word.

Now, says Curtis, its a case of moving on to something original and trying to push the digital format in new directions. We want to create something completely different, he says. You cant do the same thing twice. You cant recapture things that are gone, no matter how wonderful they were.

Since starting at The Ringer, Curtis himself has branched out into a style of reportage-based podcasting, drawing upon both his reporting and feature-writing skills.

This week hes surveying the Australian sports media scene with a view to writing one of his signature deep dives, though its an item that might sit incongruously alongside posts on Colin Kaepernick and Donald Trump. If the spirit of Grantland lives on, theres surely no better example than a thorough consideration of Robbo and Caro. What other big-name editor than Bill Simmons would give such esoteric material the green light?

Ill look back on it as a magical, fun, creative period, Curtis says of Grantland. But I also think its one of the few times in my career where the only impediment to being great was me. A lot of times in journalism were held back or we think were held back by the format of the publication, the editor or the time we had to work on something. All the usual excuses. A lot of that was basically thrown out the window [at Grantland] and the only governor of how good we could be was ourselves. That to me was really unique, and the thing Ill always remember.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/oct/19/ive-never-met-an-editor-like-him-bryan-curtis-on-bill-simmons-and-grantland

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