Whatever Happened to Play?

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When browsing Bill Simmons’ new long-form sports site, Grantland, I found myself wondering two things. First, what is a “Grantland”? And second, didn’t the New York Times try this once?

Although it only lasted two years, the TimesPlay magazine was an early attempt at a print version of Grantland. It combined long-form sports stories with fun graphics about everything from stretching properly to Super Bowl betting.

The Times launched Play in 2006 as part of a scheme to publish several high-end magazines that would attract luxury products (the others were Key, a real estate magazine, and T Styles, a fashion magazine). The idea for Play was cooked up by Times editor Gerald Marzorati after he decided that ESPN: The Magazine and Sports Illustrated were directed towards teenagers and saw an opening for mature sports writing.

Marzorati recruited writers like Michael Lewis and David Foster Wallace to give Play a higher pedigree and allowed writers to pontificate on everything from Pete Carroll to offshore sailing. Play housed Foster Wallace’s must-read essay on Roger Federer (apparently the opportunity to write it was what drew him to the magazine) and even got the scoop on the creation of the UFL, an NFL knockoff that is still around today.

The magazine even took time to look at sports on the fringe, profiling juggler Vova Galchenko and his training regime that usually ended with him throwing clubs at a wall, or the America's Cup yacht race. Columnist Bryan Curtis even got in a profile of an 85-year-old softball player in New Mexico.

The magazine was especially noted for its graphics. Check out this graph of Super Bowl teams and how they performed against the spread (reprinted on 13pt.com) or this analysis of how Tiger Woods wins a major (this was back when Tiger Woods actually won majors).

Despite widespread praise and a nomination for an American Society of Magazine Editors award, Play folded just two years later. Editorial director Marzorati later told the New York Observer that the Times killed the magazine because it was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. In announcing that the magazine was closing, the Times said publicly that it had “more or less broken even,” although they attributed most of that success to an Olympics issue that sold out its all of its ad space.

“When it started, it was a quarterly and we wanted to get it to a monthly, but each year we kept saying ‘This isn’t the year. This isn’t the year,’” Marzorati said. “And the economy kept going in the wrong direction.’ We couldn’t see how we could possibly expand it.”

Lucky for us, the Times has the entirety of the Play archives on their website.

Oh, and as for my first question, it's a reference to sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was so prolific that he also had a college football bowl game named after him. Have any of you checked out Grantland.com yet? What do you think?

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June 20, 2011 - 6:32am
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