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…

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.

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?

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.

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About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - EIC and CEO at @comeback_sports and @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

90 thoughts on “Shuttering Of Grantland Hints At Corroding ESPN Culture, Competency, And Gumption

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