There are many terrific articles coming in many different flavors covering ESPN’s decision to pull the plug on Grantland. It’s encouraging to see the outpouring of thoughts, opinions, and support for one the most ambitious sports content ventures the internet has seen. I’ve held back from sharing my thoughts wanting to see if my #hottake would cool off with some time or perhaps some new reporting on the decision making process would emerge that would change my opinion. That hasn’t happened, so here it is…
In this observer’s humble opinion, ESPN’s decision to shutter Grantland is by a good margin the network’s dumbest decision in the five years I have professionally been involved in tracking the company. I say this with disappointment, conviction, and anger and if you’ll allow me, I’ll walk you through this strong sentiment.
I’ll start by eliminating some low hanging fruit to dismiss this strongly worded opinion (feel free to skip ahead).
It’s not because I was a HUGE fan of the site…
I had to double-check if I followed the site on Twitter (yes) and Facebook (no). I didn’t go there every day. I didn’t go in most weeks. I’m probably like a lot of readers of the site outside of the loyal cult following in that I’m finicky on what long-form content I choose to read. I don’t just read something because it’s good. It has to be about a topic I have a high baseline interest in. Hence, in most months the amount of Grantland articles I read could be counted on one hand. That said, those articles were absolutely wonderful. Some of them I’ve re-read many times and were articles I’d actively lobby people to read (particularly the oral histories). I don’t think I’ve ever really done that consistently on any other site.
It’s not because I view Bill Simmons as some type of savior and ESPN as inherently evil…
I highly respect Simmons and what he’s done. He made tremendous progress in getting ESPN to elevate and broaden their content mix. He was prickly, opinionated, and outspoken. That said, I have never embraced him like many pockets of the web do. I don’t solely blame ESPN for his ouster nor think his meddling and needling since was constructive or helpful in Grantland’s viability going forward.
It’s not because I’ll principally back creative/editorial over corporate culture needs or romanticize its mission…
Grantland is done? Man that's a Coors Light Cold Hard Fact if I've ever heard one
— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) October 30, 2015
My educational background is in business. I run Awful Announcing’s finances. I’m that asshole who put up that ad that you think is so annoying. I even watch some CNBC. It’s not lost on me whatsoever the looming pressures facing ESPN’s business and the need to cut costs from areas that aren’t performing. It’s easy to blame the suits every time, but that’s not always the case.
It’s not because I hate ESPN…
It’s easy to hate ESPN. Many sports fan do. Too many I’d say. Many people think we/I do although if you look at my writer archive or tweets, I’m regularly quite complimentary and hopefully fair to ESPN. Here is the reality – ESPN does hundreds of things well that we take for granted and only dozens of thing wrong (sometimes for financial gain). CBS/CBSSN and NBC/NBCSN are never going to make a run at ESPN in our lifetime.
Fox is trying, but if you stack up the quality of programming and personalities between ESPN and Fox/FS1 you begin to realize “maybe we have it pretty good as is.” We can moan about First Take but it’s largely just stupid and something you don’t have to watch. But if you’ve moseyed on over to the “fun” competitor of ESPN’s of late, you’re probably much more likely to bump into some much intentional shit-mongering and idiotic drivel than you are with ESPN.
All that said, my respect and optimism that ESPN and John Skipper are, as they say in politics, “heading on the right track,” has been climbing in recent years. The recent editorial and marketing pivot of SC At Night being a solid datapoint of that optimism.
OK got it…. so now that you blabbed for 500 words, why was shuttering Grantland REALLY stupid…
Oh god where to start.
The ultimate outcome is something I find hard to justify, so if no substantive coordinated attempt was made or it was just a feeble attempt influenced by bad internal politics and culture, either way it’s an outcome that should have been avoidable. Preventing this moment should have been a MAJOR priority given the irreparable harm closing Grantland would have on the ESPN brand.
Either way, ESPN failed because their efforts to stabilize Grantland were embarrassingly aloof and ham-handed or the decision to barely try was a terribly misguided one that undervalued Grantland’s brand, business outlook, and overall importance to ESPN.
But it was losing money. What’s wrong with ESPN pulling the plug?
Grantland was losing money. ESPN’s profit margin was trending down. People were FREAKING OUT and tough decisions including layoffs were made. But what I can’t wrap my head around is that ESPN just raised the white flag without any effort to turn around the business.
Grantland was passively monetized, because that’s cool. Readers like that. Many publishers and social networks hope to achieve a large scale by doing this and then basically figure out a less disruptive higher yielding monetization strategy down the road. The reality is that it rarely works. And the times it does, it’s often because VC dollars helped sustain the strategy until an acquisition or IPO comes and it becomes someone else’s problem to solve.
Ironically, the place I would most want to do a deep dive on the death of Grantland…is Grantland.
— Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) October 30, 2015
There was always going to be a target on Grantland’s back as long as it was losing money, so the clock was ticking to come up with a plan to turn red to black in some timely fashion. I imagine Bill Simmons was a roadblock in implementing a more aggressive monetization strategy, but he’s been gone since May. That’s six months and literally ESPN let the site bleed out.
Soooooooooo much could have been done to alleviate the financial strain, which was really a drop in the bucket for ESPN expense wise (food for thought – I’m confident the total loss Grantland experienced per year is less than Chris Berman’s salary). Any of these things could have been implemented:
– More ads on site or larger ads on site.
– Higher frequency of content. Potentially spending more for ramped up news coverage poaching folks from sites like Uproxx, The AV Club, and Hitfix where I imagine the talent is cheaper, more willing to write with more frequency, and “cool” enough to not hinder the credibility of the site. Grantland’s menu of content was limited and high on calories with the ingredients being very expensive. While a shift to the 20 page BJ’s like menu wasn’t necessary, the introduction of more diverse, expansive, and cheaper-to-produce menu of content options could have very well grown the site’s audience and stabilized the site’s economics.
– Looking to re-up existing talent at lesser compensation rates or higher frequency of writing. Not fun conversations to have, but better than shuttering the site and one that is easier to have given the known financial losses the site had.
– Monetizing the podcasts. ESPN has the ear of every major advertiser as well as a very substantial scale compared to others chasing these elusive dollars. If it were up to me, I’d look to outsource this to some saucy startup willing to guarantee certain revenue levels. ESPN has done many similar deals in the past where they don’t have a core competency and knows startups exist with supportive investors that are willing to raise their stature in the marketplace by taking on the risk of losing money on the deal.
Add it all up and ESPN just plainly refused to do a few simple and easy things that could have helped Grantland turn a profit or at least get much closer to doing so.
But what if the math just wouldn’t work to make the site profitable?
I don’t even buy that question given Grantland’s scale and the ability to constantly iterate on the business model to get it to a stable place. But just for shits and giggles, I’ll entertain this possibility.
How about implementing a paywall based on usage, or putting certain content behind a paywall? This isn’t a new idea for internet publishing, nor for ESPN.
What about this idea – folding in Grantland access with ESPN Insider and ESPN The Magazine. Imagine if the best, most evergreen Grantland content was a sizable percentage of each ESPN the Magazine. That just might make you read a magazine again, right? What’s a conservative number of people who would pay to get all the benefits of ESPN Insider and the Magazine and support Grantland (I know there is minimal overlap in those audience segments but I’m confident ESPN would LOVE a pop in their subscription numbers). 20k subscribers? 50k? 100k?
You’re not going to convince me given ESPN’s top of the mountain status in pretty much everything that they couldn’t figure this out financially without reinventing the wheel or diverting too many resources into the efforts.
That’s what makes this so difficult for me to swallow. Yes, I’m terribly bummed Grantland is gone, but I’m left with the realization that some mix of troubling incompetency, personal politics, laziness, or corporate culture ultimately led to this decision.
That absolutely pains me given how much we need and rely on ESPN to deliver an enjoyable experience as a sports fan.
Even if this wasn’t going to work financially was shuttering it the best option?
I always loved Grantland's oral history of The National. The final line seems appropriate today. pic.twitter.com/3u6otWbUba
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) October 30, 2015
ESPN isn’t in the business of selling assets but I’d be shocked if a deal couldn’t have been reached with Vice, Vox, of maybe even Simmons directly that could have kept ESPN involved in some fashion (Comscore rollup, ongoing revenue sharing/traffic promotion), but offload the talent contracts, brand, etc to someone else.
I mean for crying out loud the Players Tribune just raised millions of dollars at an eight figure valuation. You’re telling me that retiring the brand and not cashing it out to a group that would have been able to continue the editorial path and vision the site had was not possible? If ESPN wanted to wash their hands of the site, the opportunity was most certainly there to do so.
The DRASTIC underestimation of the Grantland brand and feeding the so called “false narratives.”
There is no polite way to say it, but Skipper and ESPN look incredibly obtuse here. Grantland had a sizable audience with a lot of brand loyalty. It wasn’t like Sporting News’s The Sporting Blog or AOL’s Fanhouse where the audience and brand affinity wasn’t there and the audience was nominal or dependent on certain traffic sources.
Grantland was many people’s favorite site and sure, we’d love to discount that audience to a certain type, but that’s just too convenient. I found myself absolutely floored by the spectrum of people livid at ESPN for this decision. I even saw some people go unhinged on Facebook on walls of ESPN employees who were not even remotely involved in the decision.
Pulling the plug on Grantland was a powder keg of negative PR and lasting negative brand sentiment for ESPN. This decision equated to thinking it was a good idea to knock over a hornet’s nest. The worst part is it plays EXACTLY into the “false narratives” John Skipper complained about recently.
Bill Simmons has probably the largest tribe of passionate fans and loyal employees as any sports media personality. He was embraced (rightly or wrongly), as this influence of change and good at ESPN. The true reality of the motivation of the parting of ways is murky, although probably equal in terms of blame in the circumstances that led to the split. It’s not a stretch to imagine Simmons was difficult to work with, not beloved in Bristol, over-enabled, and authoritative in his demands and opinions.
But Grantland remained under ESPN’s umbrella and those in Simmons’ tribe, already irked by his ouster, could look at ESPN and see hope for the future. Multiple times Skipper and others reassured Grantland would continue. Contracts were extended and behind the scenes ESPN PR was pushing a narrative that traffic had not fallen off since Simmons’ departure.
ESPN was doing everything publicly and privately to send the message that they were committed to Grantland. Mere weeks later, the site is no more.
ESPN was doing the noble thing and the smart thing in not playing into the notion that Simmons is the only person capable of leading an effort to be ambitious and unique in appealing to a different and growing subset of fans who feel disenfranchised by what ESPN has become.
Yes, Simmons was undermining the site and there was a talent drain (we’ll get to that), but ESPN waving the white flag after having done essentially jack-shit to stop the bleeding only confirms the assumption that ESPN is a stodgy borg-like corporate giant unable to appeal to this segment of sports fans without much prodding and handholding from someone like Simmons. By making this move, you’ve confirmed the “false narrative” you’re out there complaining about in that you’re not dependent on high priced talent to make a deeper connection with sports fans.
It’s very disappointing to see ESPN give up on something with so much brand value and essentially become an evil corporate caricature rather than rolling up the sleeves and challenging themselves to turn the situation around. Stuff like this makes it so easy for a generation of like-minded sports fans to say “Fuck ESPN!” and in this case, I don’t blame them. Grantland was many people’s favorite site and THE site so many young writers aspired to write on.
Somehow, none of this seemed to register to decision makers at ESPN.
So it’s about the money yet The Undefeated and 538 have ESPN’s support?
538 allegedly loses money, but I get it. Nate Silver has a contract and it’s an election year. All good.
But what you’ll hear from many industry folks both inside and outside of Bristol is that John Skipper’s mission in launching The Undefeated is (up until this shitshow) his biggest mistake.
What started out as a hybrid attempt to A) disrupt FS1’s momentum at launch (Whitlock was working on TV concepts for the network) and B) back the noble cause of hiring minority sportswriters to have a site focused on a different perspective looking at sports, entertainment, as well as political and socioeconomic issues facing minorities, has eroded into one of the biggest ongoing train-wrecks in recent memory at ESPN.
The idea was flawed chiefly because the idea of putting Whitlock in charge of anything is terribly ill-advised and was worse, incredibly obvious for anyone who had any experience dealing with him.
This site concept has merit, but at another company and obviously not with Jason Whitlock steering the ship. Former ombudsman (another topic I’ll hit on….yes I’m not done venting), Robert Lipsyte in his piece bemoaning Grantland’s demise touched on its struggles:
“An attempt to launch a Grantland-style site devoted to African-American sports issues has been mired in what seems like bad faith and subversive mismanagement.”
Lipsyte also touches on the fact that a lot of the feedback he got from ESPN viewers came from a conservative audience who often became angered to coverage of high profile moments like Michael Sam’s kiss and Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY award. It’s hard to see how ESPN and Disney could successfully launch a content brand looking to sink it’s teeth into complicated and politically charged issues and not disenfranchise a large audience segment that Lipsyte indentifies as “the regular ESPN regular audience”.
And yet with two years plus of flailing around with Whitlock (even as potentially going as far to trade some positive press for Whitlock for the Simmons departure scoop as Tommy Craggs insinuates below), Skipper is still pushing The Undefeated to launch despite the inability to predict what kind of success it may or may not have.
— Tommy Craggs (@tcraggs22) October 4, 2015
Many believe The Undefeated will face the same issues Grantland did – infrequent content from high priced contributors and a niche audience.
I get the strong vibe having discussed this with many that even the intended audience for the site has no appetite for the brand given what’s transpired to date and that sentiment is only compounded by Grantland’s shuttering.
If it’s all about the bottom line, how can Skipper be fine spending money on a venture with essentially no path to success rather than support a venture which has achieved significant scale, praise, and inhabits a much larger content niche and audience segment. Is it because The Undefeated is his idea and not Simmons’ idea? How Disney’s board doesn’t feel the need to convey the realities of the situation to Skipper is beyond me.
A company frozen in indecisiveness?
A common pattern emerges the more you look at ESPN. Time and time again they have a way of letting turmoil fester to a point where it’s too big of a clusterfuck for them to figure it out.
We’re nearly a year into not having an ombudsman to help provide insight into the many controversies ESPN finds itself in (this vacant position comes at conveniently good time for Bristol to avoid scrutiny)
– Curt Schilling has made it clear he isn’t going to tone down his social media drivel. He’s got a year left on his contract and yet ESPN will likely just employ their normal tactic of doing nothing and hoping for the best when it’s probably going to spiral out of control into a larger story.
– The Undefeated remains unlaunched after way too long drinking the Kool-Aid that Whitlock would deliver the cohesiveness to launch that site. Not once did ESPN mention Deadspin’s reporting of the behind the scenes acrimony hindering the site’s progress to launch in their assessment in the situation nor did Lipsyte mention it in his article on ESPN’s affinity sites. We’ve been told ESPN people will not utter the site’s name acknowledging the source of the controversy in behind the scenes discussions.
– Currently the status of the Sacramento Kings 30 for 30 is unknown to the ire of many. Most believe it will never be aired but we’ll most likely see ESPN drag this one out with no decisiveness before another late Friday news dump announcing it won’t air.
– ESPN never filled the editor in chief role at Grantland when Simmons left beyond an interim basis with Chris Connelly. They never elevated core staffers to leadership positions, signaling a continued interest in the site while building trust with old guard of Simmons loyalists. Key writers and editors left along the way. ESPN never made a substantive move in any direction and in the rare case ESPN does seem to have an impulse to implement changes, the company comes off as an aircraft carrier at sea trying to make a three point turn to go in a different direction.
ESPN had no gameplan to start with.
Compounding astonishment on the handling of all of this is the fact that ESPN opted into this situation by moving on from Simmons and did so on THEIR schedule. Who knows what the working relationship was like with Simmons and Skipper and others at ESPN, as well as what backchannel discussions were going on with his agent, but it was ESPN who imploded the relationship by communicating their decision to the New York Times and allegedly with no notice to Simmons.
How can that decision be justified if true? The best effort should have been made to smooth over the exit process and more importantly, figure out a transition/operating plan for Grantland that included winning over the staff, conveying the business reality of the site, and involving the staff in making the changes to make the site viable long term.
It’s as if Skipper awoke one day with no foresight on how any of this would play out. Even if he thinks ESPN is better off without Simmons and Grantland, how can he justify extensive collateral brand damage ESPN has taken here? I’m sure they’ll spin that “Grantland isn’t really dead” and they’ll absorb a lot of those writers into ESPN.com, but the writing is on the wall that they’re incrementally moving on and unwinding the business. Slowly but surely as more and more writers move on and bemoan what has transpired, ESPN will continue to feel the incremental doses of disdain from the mishandling of Grantland’s closure and it will impact the bottom line.
Grantland was the home of some of my favourite writers. No disrespect to other ESPNers, but Grantland gave that place more of a soul.
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) October 30, 2015
There has been a tremendous outpouring of sympathy to the talented folks at Grantland. Part of me thinks it’s odd given “contracts are being honored” and many less cool/sexy publications lay off writers all of the time with little fanfare. I strongly suspect some buyouts will be coming for many. If ESPN truly is getting out the pop culture business, a lot of these voices just won’t fit in anywhere at ESPN.com.
Also, if ESPN is getting out of the pop culture business, I eagerly await celebrities with no interest in sports no longer doing appearances on SportsCenter promoting crappy movies and entire series devoted to Snoop Dog’s son’s decision on where to play college football (spoiler alert: he picks a school and decides he doesn’t want to play so it’s a waste of time for viewers but a great advertisement for Snoop and his family).
I imagine a lot of these folks will have great opportunities in front of them, especially with the affiliation of Grantland on their resume. Simmons will likely reunite down the road with many of them and go on to great success under a new banner where they’ll likely get the last laugh.
My relationship and consumption with ESPN won’t change. I’ll watch the same stuff, read the same stuff, and so on. But while my relationship won’t change much, my opinion has. I’ll never understand this decision. I’ve lost faith in ESPN’s leadership to navigate the turbulent waters they’re entering with the company facing its biggest financial and structural crossroads in years. I don’t and won’t know the particular affliction of culture, competence, politics, and effort that led to this outcome but I now know it exists and I worry what else it will impact.
Bill Simmons and ESPN did many great things together. They needed each other to do so. With Simmons gone, one wonders if ESPN will ever find the internal drive, ambition, and taste to ever do something as innovative and cool as Grantland or 3o for 30 again. Retracing current events it’s hard to believe ESPN will ever re-capture this audience. If you work at ESPN or Disney, that should be incredibly troubling and raise the fundamental question – how could you let this happen?