Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 10, 2011
BUSINESS/OTHER SPORTS: Grantland on the National
If you haven't yet checked out Bill Simmons' new ESPN-backed website Grantland.com, you should. The site has taken its share of mockery, partly due to the hazing that comes with new, risky ideas, partly because Bill's success (a recent NY Times profile labelled him " the most prominent sportswriter in America") has spawned a natural backlash, partly because of the eccentric decision by ESPN brass to name the site after long-dead 1920s sportswriting icon Grantland Rice. The site is mainly geared towards long-form sportswriting, and of course it makes me nostalgic for the days when Bill was running his own small, scrappy regional site back in Boston, where I was one of the very few regular contributors.
Anyway, it is fitting that one of Grantland's inaugural features is a two-part oral history/remembrance (here and here) of The National, America's first and only national daily sports newspaper, which ran from 1990-91. The profile is chock full of hilarious detail, lovingly remembered by the many talented writers who worked there - it's worth the read just for the vicious potshots taken by the interviewees at Mike Lupica, who used The National as one of his many platforms but, unlike most of the others, didn't commit his heart and soul to the project. You can tell reading it that most of the people involved felt, and still feel, that The National was the most exciting thing they'd ever be involved with. The tale of its rise and fall, complete with extravagant spending, a fantastic product, and a complete failure of practical business planning, strongly foreshadowed the dot-com mania that arose later in the decade, although ironically it was the technology of the late 90s that the paper most desperately needed and lacked. But as the retrospective points out, the paper may not have been a success, but it had influence on the sports-media world that persists to this day.
I remember fondly reading The National, on those occasions when I could lay hands on it and it had timely boxscores, always a dicey proposition. Some context on the times, and on why I confess I didn't myself read The National as often as I'd have liked: we think today of the college years as a time when young people are deluged with access to the Information Age, but in 1990-91 I was in my sophmore-junior years in college in the days before the Internet; I didn't own a television until my third year of law school, I could only sporadically get WFAN, I couldn't afford a daily newspaper (as often as not I went to the library to read the papers)...and at the time, I was writing a weekly political op-ed column for the campus newspaper, the lead sports columnist job being filled by Bill Simmons. When I went to spend a semester in DC in the spring of 1992, I actually had to put a 3.5" floppy disk in the mail every week to publish my column. When I started writing again for Bill's site in 2000, it was a revelation to be able to email him a column and have it posted the next day. Now, of course, anything but instantaneous publication seems archaic.
Anyway, set aside some reading time - it's a long profile but worth the read.