Sports Talk

In 2011, Bill Simmons founded Grantland, a niche sports blog that operated out of ESPN’s website. For around a decade Simmons had enjoyed his own “Sports Guy” column on ESPN, where he opined about all things sports- and culture-related, reading sports through culture and culture through sports. Part of Simmons’s The Book of Basketball contains an extended comparison of Kobe Bryant with Michael J. Fox’s character in Teen Wolf, for instance.

On Grantland

Mike & Mike interviewing Commander F. Curtis Jones. Photo by Jesse J. Johnson, via Wikimedia.

2009 was a bad year for college graduates but a great year for Philadelphia sports radio. I was fifteen months out of school, living at home and tutoring in the greater southeastern Pennsylvania area. In the afternoons that fall I would go on house calls, shuttling between Radnor, King of Prussia, and Lansdale. During the drives, which would last anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes, I would switch back and forth from Howard Eskin’s 610 WIP to Mike Missanelli’s 97.5 The Fanatic. The Eagles were coming off of a 9–6–1 regular season and an improbable run to the NFC conference championship. They signed Michael Vick that summer. Andy Reid was still the team’s coach, despite fans’ suspicion that he would never win a Super Bowl; Donovan McNabb was still the team’s quarterback, despite fans’ certainty that he would never win a Super Bowl. Expectations were high. Everybody was angry about everything.

This was the era of the “sports talk radio ratings war” in Philadelphia. Since the early ’90s, Howard Eskin had hosted WIP’s afternoon show, putting a stranglehold on the 3–7 PM time slot. Eskin’s popularity was far-reaching and indisputable. In 1996, he gained notoriety when he accused star Flyers center Eric Lindros of maintaining mob connections, and Joseph Salvatore Merlino (“Skinny Joey”) called in to assure Eskin he was mistaken. In 2002, Eskin was suspended for thirty days because he claimed that Allen Iverson’s lawyer had paid a witness to lie in court during a domestic violence case and that another one of AI’s witnesses had failed a lie detector test. (Neither of these claims was true.) In 2007 and 2013, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel challenged Eskin to a fight during a postgame press conference. Eskin was obnoxious to athletes and contemptuous of Philadelphia sports fans. According to Wikipedia, he was known for addressing callers as “dopes,” “idiots,” “nitwits,” “creeps,” and “morons” during broadcasts. Eskin’s trademark fashion accessory was the fur coat, which he wore to Eagles games during the chilly winter months.

It was unimaginable before the late ’00s that anyone would challenge WIP’s market share dominance. Everything changed in 2008, though, when SportsTalk 950 AM was rebranded ESPN 950. “Mike and Mike in the Morning” played every day from 6 until 10 AM, starring Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg—big, onscreen ESPN talent. “Mike and Mike” was set up against WIP’s established morning show, which featured local stars Angelo Cataldi, Al Morganti, Keith Jones, Gary Shears, and Rhea Hughes. (WIP’s morning show wasn’t entirely focused on sports; instead it cultivated more of a we’re-all-hanging-out-at-a-bar feel. My dad wouldn’t let me and my brother listen to it when we were growing up.) ESPN 950 would eventually make other strategic programming changes to appeal to the youth. It began broadcasting on FM! It rechristened itself “The Fanatic”! The biggest change was in the afternoon slot. Mike Missanelli, a former WIP host, would go face-to-face against Eskin. “Mikey Miss,” as he’s affectionately called, had lost his job at WIP after a St. Patrick’s Day incident in 2006. Broadcasting a show live from Brownies 23 East in Ardmore, Mikey Miss exchanged words with an on-site producer after some technical problems. An altercation ensued. What kind of an altercation is still a matter of controversy. Some say that Mikey Miss punched the producer; Mikey Miss claims they just wrestled a little. Three days later Mikey Miss was fired from WIP.

Mike Missanelli’s on-air persona took a sympathetic view of the average Philadelphia sports fan. Where Eskin tended to berate fans and defend the Eagles front office, which gave him all kinds of media access, Missanelli would berate the Eagles front office and defend the fans. Were Philadelphians unsatisfied with Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb? Well, Mikey Miss was unsatisfied too. Were fans skeptical of Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles’ owner? Well, so was Mikey Miss—and not just skeptical, but fed up! Although Philadelphia sports fans enjoy something of a ghastly national reputation—a Phillies fan was once arrested for intentionally vomiting on an eleven year old girl—Missanelli defiantly embraced an us-versus-them mentality. The average Philadelphia fan wasn’t half as awful and disgusting as everybody thought he was, Missanelli insisted. Just misunderstood. By 2009 Missanelli and Eskin were in a ratings dogfight. By 2010, after I had left southeastern Pennsylvania and started graduate school on the West Coast, Missanelli had eclipsed Eskin as the most trusted voice in Philadelphia sports. On September 2, 2011, Eskin hosted his last show in the afternoon time slot.

From one angle the rating wars was the story of a benevolent national corporation (Missanelli backed by ESPN) overthrowing a corrupt local tyrant (Eskin). From another angle it was the story of a faceless corporation homogenizing everything that’s authentic and beautiful about local culture. Neither of these stories is especially satisfying in the end, though. I find it hard to imagine that ESPN and its proliferating network of radio affiliates has done a whole lot to alter the discourse of Philadelphia talk radio, which retains its local flavor against all odds. Mikey Miss or Howard Eskin—it’s all the same mid-Atlantic accent. Missanelli is now the tyrant Eskin once was. He cuts off callers before they can finish their questions. He rants at callers. He cuts off callers before they can respond to his rants. I imagine it’s the same in most cities, only different in subtle and meaningful ways. What compels somebody to call in to a sports radio show, anyway? The back-and-forths between host and caller offer a complicated experience for ordinary listeners. You feel contempt for the host because he abuses the callers, and you feel contempt for the callers because they seem so happy to take the abuse. The whole experience is icky, and if you enjoy that ickiness, even for a brief moment, you end up feeling ickier. ESPN can’t take that away from local sports radio.

In 2011, Bill Simmons founded Grantland, a niche sports blog that operated out of ESPN’s website. For around a decade Simmons had enjoyed his own “Sports Guy” column on ESPN, where he opined about all things sports- and culture-related, reading sports through culture and culture through sports. Part of Simmons’s The Book of Basketball contains an extended comparison of Kobe Bryant with Michael J. Fox’s character in Teen Wolf, for instance. The eight seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm are like eights seasons in a Hall of Fame pitcher’s career, is an article he wrote one time. Bill Belichick’s ruthless treatment of aging veterans is like Clive Owen’s management style on The Knick, is an article that Simmons never wrote but someday plausibly might. I’ve never especially enjoyed Simmons’s version of sports analysis, but it became clear shortly after Grantland launched that his real gifts lay less in writing and more in his ability to assemble talent. The blog featured decent-to-great long-form articles by writers like Bill Barnwell, Zach Lowe, Jay Caspian Kang, Molly Lambert, Andy Greenwald, and Wesley Morris. It produced gripping podcasts featuring larger-than-life personalities like Jalen Rose, Malcolm Gladwell, and the Men in Blazers.

Grantland’s role in ESPN’s larger corporate structure always seemed confusing to me, from the outside. Grantland couldn’t be generating money for anyone, could it? The only explanation I could muster, coming out of the ratings wars, was that Grantland appeared to be another one of ESPN’s attempts to exercise control over the way sports were talked about in the United States. Just how ESPN was exercising control remained something of a mystery. Executives at ESPN appeared to be groping towards some sort of cultural prestige. Can sports even have cultural prestige?

The closest ESPN had ever come to being “cool” was in the late-’80s and ’90s, when the network’s flagship program SportsCenter was taken over by a cadre of charismatic young anchors. I remember scrolling through TV Guide once and coming across a paragraph-long summary of SportsCenter, which contained sentences like: “The Emmy-winning show revolutionized the sports-news genre by deftly mixing information with irreverence in a hip, daily scrapbook of homers, touchdowns, and slam dunks.” Whatever was irreverent or hip about SportsCenter was surely the product of the show’s second- and third-wave anchors—Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Kenny Mayne, Rich Eisen, Linda Cohn, and Stuart Scott. They made fun commercials that brought out-of-this-world professional athletes into the humdrum rhythms of daily office life. They made quirky exclamations over highlight reels. “You can’t stop him; you can only hope to contain him!” “As cool as the other side of the pillow!” “Yahtzee!” “Booyah!”

Things began to change at ESPN in the early aughts, when the company expanded its original television programming beyond SportsCenter to fit into the emerging twenty-four-hour news cycle. The need to produce content led to an ever-multiplying set of forgettable sports-themed shows. Do you like sports trivia? Tune in to Stump the Schwab. Do you ever imagine what it takes to be an ESPN anchor? Check out Dream Job. Already caught up on the latest scores and desperate to hear two men scream at each other for no apparent reason? Flip over to Cold Pizza on ESPN2 and watch Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith go at it. Since 2000 ESPN has borrowed liberally from the political arena, organizing sports discourse on television around the CNN “Crossfire” model of debate. One guy says the Lakers will win the NBA finals, another guy says they won’t. At its most entertaining this has resulted in shows like Pardon the Interruption, where cohosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon sit across from each other and debate recent controversies, kind of like Skip and Stephen A., only it’s clear all along that neither Kornheiser nor Wilbon is especially invested in the stakes of the debate, and really they’re just out there trying to have a little fun. In its most degraded form the Crossfire model has resulted in shows like Around the Horn, where four once-great sports writers like Jackie MacMullan and Bob Ryan make ad hominem attacks on each other and are awarded “points” over the course of five rounds. The participant with the most points at the end of the show wins. What does the participant win? I’ve watched Around the Horn off and on for more than a decade, and I still don’t know.

Needless to say, Grantland didn’t fit in with ESPN’s house style, which over the years had become increasingly bro-y and shrill, especially as ESPN spent billions of dollars acquiring broadcast rights to the MLB, the NBA, and (most importantly of all) the NFL. To me, a writer like Zach Lowe came to represent what Grantland was all about. If traditional newspaper sports coverage, dominated by the beat writers, always seemed outdated and unnecessarily results-oriented—here is the score, here is what this manager or that coach has to say about it—Zach Lowe’s work on the NBA offered a level of analysis beyond anything previously available in print journalism. He mixed advanced statistics with incisive breakdowns of game footage. He luxuriated in the day-to-day affairs of the NBA franchise, the minutiae of basketball success. He wrote articles on the death and life of the post-up and advances in sports science, like the GPS devices players recently began wearing to measure performance. If ESPN’s sports coverage had grown substanceless and antagonism-driven, Lowe’s three-thousand-word articles were packed with substance and didn’t seem particularly mad at anyone. On his podcast, “The Lowe Post,” he interviewed owners like Mark Cuban and coaches like Stan Van Gundy. He spoke to fellow sports journalists like Howard Beck and Rachel Nichols about the craft of reporting. On air Lowe sounded deferential, self-effacing, conflict-averse. The dramatic spike in the quality of basketball discourse in recent years can’t entirely be attributed to the example set by Lowe on Grantland, but unquestionably Lowe has empowered cutting-edge basketball analysts to seek a wider audience, whether by retweeting their articles or referencing their work on air. A community of basketball writers has emerged in the last few months—Nate Duncan, Danny Leroux, Jonathan Tjarks, Seth Partnow, and Arturo Galletti, to name just a few—that seems like the next phase in sports journalism. These writers have calibrated their work to appeal to a specific sector of the sports viewing population—more committed than the casual fan, more probing than the obsessive fan, and lacking the expertise and free time of the egghead specialist.

It’s not surprising that something like the “Dunc’d on Podcast,” which features lawyers-turned-sports-writers Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux, found its footing last spring during the NBA playoffs, shortly after Bill Simmons was fired from Grantland for criticizing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and ESPN’s relationship with the NFL. In the wake of Simmons’s dismissal, Grantland’s future remained uncertain. It seemed unlikely that the website could continue to produce high-quality sports writing under interim editor in chief Chris Connolly. And what would happen to Simmons? Would he start a new blog and poach Grantland’s talent? The uncertainty proved productive, at least for basketball writers, who seemed to be generating new blogs and podcasts each day. When ESPN announced last Friday it was suspending Grantland, effective immediately, some of that uncertainty was dispelled, but much remains.

Whether the falling out between Grantland and ESPN was personal or financial or a combination of the two, the explanations that have been offered seem both entirely plausible and deeply unsatisfying. ESPN must have known Grantland would never generate profits, and Simmons must have known ESPN would always defend the NFL. The irony of all of this is that whatever ESPN originally wanted from Grantland, Grantland surely delivered. By last year Grantland had proved itself, in the world of sports, something of an avant-garde—approximately “cool.” The most meaningful way in which ESPN has shaped the way we talk about sports in the last couple of decades doesn’t seem to be its expanding radio network, or its debate-style television programming, inherited from CNN. Instead it’s the space Grantland wedged open between mainstream sports coverage and more specialized forms of analysis. The hunger for this new kind of sports writing has remained in the aftermath of Grantland’s dissolution—and, as far as I can tell, will persist.

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