Does The Undefeated have a more certain future than Grantland?

It’s a pretty audacious question to ask, but in light of recent events, it may actually be true.  ESPN jettisoned the heads of both sites this year – Jason Whitlock and Bill Simmons.  But whereas The Undefeated named Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida as the new editor-in-chief of the sports, race, and culture site today… Grantland’s future is now the suddenly less clear of the two.

For starters, Grantland still has an interim editor-in-chief in Chris Connelly.  While Connelly has a lengthy experience in print and television journalism, thus far he seems to be an odd fit to carry on the Grantland flag from the departed Bill Simmons.  ESPN has routinely made Connelly unavailable for interviews, which is an odd strategy if you’re trying to publicly move the site forward in any way and trumpet a new era.  That silence from within Grantland is doubly ominous given the reports that indicate Grantland staffers haven’t quickly adapted to Connelly’s style of leadership.

It’d be one thing if those murmurs were just from a few disenchanted Simmons loyalists who were grumbling under the new boss.  This is corporate America, after all, these things are to be expected and dealt with.  But we’re not just talking about frustrations with middle management here.  Grantland has been faced with several major departures in the past few months.  Arguably their best and most respected writer Wesley Morris bolted for the New York Times.  Four Grantland writers defected to their old boss Bill Simmons and his yet-to-be-revealed new writing venture.  The site’s deputy editor departed to join MTV.  And just today, it was reported by Jim Miller that Rembert Browne was also on the move, leaving with a year on his contract.  Browne is joining New York Magazine.

ESPN points to multiple Grantland writers that have re-signed with the site to try to get the message across that it’s not a Grantland exodus… but losing seven staffers in such a short period of time speaks for itself.

To tie the two above tentpoles of Grantland uneasiness together, Miller also reported that Connelly cut tributes to departing staffers from podcasts at the site, in a move that is sure to do the exact opposite of boosting morale.

If current Grantland writers can’t pay tribute to former Grantland writers on Grantland podcasts… what other platform would they be a better fit for, exactly?

It’s hard to describe what the current state of Grantland is except for “in flux.”  On top of the editorial turmoil at Grantland is the financial murkiness that has consistently surrounded the site, even when Simmons was there.  Let’s be honest – Grantland is a site by writers for writers.  Grantland has largely built its rep on extensive, expansive (and expensive) feature pieces or specialized sports and pop culture takes that aren’t exactly Buzzfeed or Elite Daily click monsters.  Trying to get a clear understanding of Grantland’s profitability and pageviews is the Chasing Bigfoot of online sports media.  ESPN can try to tout and spin the site’s metrics all they want, but are those numbers really a sign of Grantland being able to succeed post-Simmons or is it manufactured by ESPN giving more prominent placement to the site to aid that narrative?

A report from Miller in Vanity Fair represents the culmination of the above Grantland saga – there’s a tangible concern that the site’s future may be in doubt as a stand-alone vertical:

Discussions on background with Grantland staffers past and present (ESPN executives associated with Grantland declined to talk on the record or on background for this column) reveal that the site is beset by a climate of fear, a cycle of mistrust, and a belief amongst several that staff are “treated like children.” An overall lack of communication with management has been beyond frustrating for the staff. Many heard about Connelly’s appointment on their Twitter feeds—precisely where Simmons had learned of his dismissal. 

Since its 2011 founding, Grantland has served as a channel for Simmons to expand the Grantland staff’s distinctive point of view to journalism and criticism, a no-fear zone within the ESPN empire. That privileged position can safely be considered history. There is fear now, not only for the survival of the staff—with still more departures rumored imminent—but also for the survival of Grantland itself, unthinkable as that may have seemed even a year ago. Staff-wide angst continues to grow despite a Herculean effort by ESPN to dispense metrics suggesting traffic on the site is stronger than ever, implicitly arguing that Simmons’s departure had little effect on the almighty numbers.

Miller weaves the tale of Connelly’s arrival at Grantland, a lack of resonance between new boss and staff, and the fracturing relationship between Simmons and Marie Donoghue, the Bristol executive now in charge of ESPN’s affinity sites, in his last days in charge.

But the key piece in all of this Grantland drama may be the following reasoning from Miller: ESPN is keeping Grantland alive to prove it can succeed without Bill Simmons.

If the entire ESPN vs. Simmons situation hadn’t been so overdetermined, ESPN would have probably followed Simmons’s removal with friendly farewell checks to the remaining Grantland staff and then simply closed the joint down. With expected layoffs on the horizon, one can imagine dual justifications for bidding Grantland good-bye: “It was only done in the first place for Simmons and he’s not here anymore,” plus the inevitable, “We need to tighten our financial belts.” 

However, Bristol might keep Grantland going if only to let the world know that it can survive without Simmons.

If one were to look at this situation from a completely neutral point of view, the continued existence of Grantland doesn’t make a lot of sense.  First, the guy who created the site is gone.  It’s like The Oprah Network trying to function without Oprah or E! without the Kardashians.  Second, ESPN is in the midst of drastic budget cuts and nobody can say for sure whether Grantland turns a profit.  If Grantland and all that is invested into it is a drain on ESPN’s bottom line, why would Bristol keep it afloat while having to throw even more stuff overboard to make up for it?  With the current state of ESPN’s business operations and all of the high-dollar talent that has left the network this year, a high-priced vanity site is a square peg in a round hole.

So what is keeping Grantland afloat?  Why the immediate and substantial commitment from John Skipper to Grantland’s future, even as the site is twisting in the wind with a staff exodus and an EIC who may or may not be sticking around?  The only possible logic left is this – to stick it to Bill Simmons.  To prove the old adage true that nobody is bigger than the four letters, even the biggest and baddest and boldest of them all.  What better way to do that than to see Grantland thrive and grow post-Simmons?

Let’s not forget that the relationship between Simmons and Skipper deteriorated to the point that Simmons claims he found out about Skipper’s decision to not re-sign him on Twitter.  Now that Simmons is poaching talent away from Grantland to come to his own site, it might as well be a formal declaration of war.  It will only serve to embolden ESPN to do everything they can to stop the Grantland exodus and make sure that it keeps its place among Bristol’s affinity sites.  If Grantland dies without Simmons and he’s able to successfully resurrect his sports and pop culture vision on his own terms, it betrays everything ESPN believes about its monopoly over the sports world.

Can you imagine a world where ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, lets a rebellious former employee beat them at their own game?  I don’t think so.

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