When the news came out that Sports Illustrated is planning a new website edited by Peter King, comparisons to Bill Simmons' Grantland were inevitable. Further details that have emerged on King's venture aren't going to diminish those.
There are plenty of difference between King and Simmons… and SI and ESPN. For starters, King's website will be football-only while Grantland covers not just sports, but pop culture. Nevertheless, the unique model of Grantland and its loose association with ESPN has been a success for all parties involved. After his own contract renewal, ESPN granted Simmons his own website to go in a completely new direction that hadn't been seen before at a major sports media company, and in spite of early skepticism, the model has worked.
That leaves two important questions: will this plan work for King's site as well, and if so, is it a model that can be more widely applied?
From a few angles, the plans for King's site seem quite promising. King has a major internet presence, with his weekly Monday Morning Quarterback columns reportedly drawing about 2 million readers, and he's well-known in the football world thanks to his print and online work for SI and his TV work with NBC. The site's also apparently already signed some notable football writers, including Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe and Jenny Vrentas of the (Newark) Star-Ledger. All the hires so far are NFL-focused, so there's no word on if this site will expand to college football or not, but either way it could work for them; college football carries its own substantial audience, but there are benefits to being NFL-only. While sites like Grantland and Sports On Earth have prominent NFL writers like Bill Barnwell and Mike Tanier, football coverage is still only part of what they do. Football-only sites with well-known writers do exist, including the National Football Post and Football Outsiders, but a football-only venture from a big media company with a name like King at its centre would seem likely to find a substantial audience.
In some ways, SI's already ahead even if King's site doesn't work out as well as they hope. Giving King the opportunity to expand his personal brand this way likely played a role in his decision to sign a new three-year deal with the company instead of pursuing other options, and other options were certainly there for him. He told The New York Post that he considered "five media options, including ESPN". Keeping a well-known writer's a victory for SI, considering how they've lost big names such as Rick Reilly and Joe Posnanski over the years.
Reilly's case also proves the value a personal site can provide to a writer; Reilly's supposedly signing a new deal with ESPN, but his profile's certainly dropped dramatically since he left SI for ESPN five and a half years ago. Remember when Reilly-Simmons feuds were a thing, there was legitimate debate over which ESPN personality was bigger, and Reilly could drop "he's a blogger" (2008)? Well, Simmons recently topped Richard Deitsch's list of the top 10 most powerful people in sports media (non-executive, non-behind the scenes, non-SI). Reilly? Not only was he not included on that list (or in Deitsch's 10 honourable mentions), he's at the point where he's the subject of "What happened to…" profiles, such as this November one from Sports On Earth's Will Leitch. There's more going on there than just Grantland, of course, including Simmons' high-profile involvement with 30 for 30 and ESPN's NBA pre-game shows, but editing a website built around him has really paid off for Simmons, and it represents a valuable opportunity for a writer like King. Moreover, if this website takes off, it could be an important way to keep King in the fold beyond this current contract; it ties his personal brand more closely to that of SI, and that could matter for the company.
Should we expect more big-media, personality-centred sites in the Grantland model, then? Perhaps, but the movement may not be a huge rush. For starters, this kind of site requires a substantial investment without a guaranteed return, and there aren't a lot of media companies looking to do that at the moment. For another thing, there aren't all that many writers at the moment who have both the profile to lead a site like this and the willingness to put in time editing and developing a site from the ground up. King and Simmons have two of the highest profiles out there; just because Grantland works for Simmons and the new site could work for King doesn't mean the model will work with any given writer. Beyond that, there are plenty of existing big online sports sites without a single-writer focus, and they're competing for traffic too. A King-led football site would seem to fill a niche, but there aren't a lot of similar niches that seem unfilled right now. Still, expect the sports media world to keep a close eye on how King's site does. If it takes off, the model may be used again down the road.