Grantland Launched with the Worst Ad Campaign Ever Conceived


The Open Man may be painfully late with this: It’s been a week since Bill Simmons hoisted himself on his petard in The New York Times, opening the sports-media kingmaker to outside criticism from Drew Magary, Henry Abbott and others.

A 2020 week is equivalent to roughly two years in traditional human time, and in the days since The Times bombshell detonated, COVID-19 cases have spiked to April rates; a new deluge of scandals have surfaced out of the White House; and another Boston-based sports media personality usurped Simmons’ spotlight. Not to worry, though. The Open Man is not rehashing last week’s news, but rather poking a dead body with the proverbial stick!

This summer marks the nine-year anniversary of ESPN launching Grantland, Bill Simmons’ ill-fated first attempt at lording over a sports-and-pop culture fiefdom. The Worldwide Leader had an odd affinity for niche verticals in the early 2010s, beginning with Grantland and later its acquisition of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight from The New York Times. The Undefeated is the only vertical left standing under the ESPN umbrella in 2020, despite some genius(es) in Bristol initially leaving the project in the incapable hands of career jackass Jason Whitlock.

Grantland’s lived a brief life; as of some point this January, the prestige publication has been dead longer than it existed. Grantland is one of the few options for the popular “Name something that lasted longer than the Confederacy” meme that doesn’t actually work, having spanned 50 months to the secessionist nation’s 51-month existence.

Abbott’s aforementioned burial of Simmons provides worthwhile and damning anecdotes that explain why the outlet died, despite having plenty of potential to flourish outside of Simmons’ imagination. And that latter point is important to emphasis in this weird combination eulogy/rage-inducing nostalgia: Grantland was a great idea in concept, and sometimes in execution.

Its most vexing issue, arguably, was its lack of a real identity. The mish-mash of sports and pop culture rarely felt cohesive, and Grantland never quite seemed to strike the right balance between intrepid sports journalism and garden-variety Millennial blogger snark.

In no way do I celebrate the death of Grantland. The sports journalism landscape is increasingly devoid of outlets that embrace original voices and…well, journalism, as opposed to parasitic SEO-gaming. I would love nothing more than for ESPN to reintroduce a hub for ambitious content — albeit a resurrected Page 2 appeals to me more than Grantland.

The latter’s problems were too deeply rooted to warrant a reboot, namely the inherent association with Bill Simmons’ sensibilities and Bill Simmons’ ego. What’s more, Grantland was a concept that, in hindsight, was destined to fail. To wit, I present the very reason I am blogging these thoughts: Grantland’s ad campaign at launch.

It’s been nine years, and my first viewing of the above remains burned in my brain because it’s so bad. If you’re an avid sports fan hungry for information on your favorite teams, the players on your fantasy roster, whatever…how in the hell does this rejected scene from late-seasons Desperate Housewives speak to you? More importantly, how did someone think this campaign would appeal to anyone? WHAT IS BEING ADVERTISED?

The sheer bewilderment experiencing this campaign in real-time can, like all things, be best explained via a Golden Age Simpsons reference.