The first big post-Simmons exit has taken place at Grantland.  Renowned critic Wesley Morris is moving from the ESPN vertical to the New York Times.

ESPN posted this short statement on their public relations site:

“Wesley spoke to us about this opportunity at the New York Times and his desire to pursue it. This is a unique opportunity, and is a testament to the level of success that Grantland has achieved and the extraordinarily talented team we have. Wesley is an outstanding writer and colleague and we wish him all the best.”

Morris was one of the biggest hires Bill Simmons made at Grantland that went a long way towards legitimizing the space as a place for top writers from all over the spectrum.  Morris left the Boston Globe in early 2013 to join Grantland after winning the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Ever since ESPN parted ways with Bill Simmons, the future of Grantland has been somewhat murky.  Many of the site’s top writers were fiercely loyal to Simmons and reports have indicated that the staff’s response to interim editor-in-chief Chris Connolly’s tenure has been mixed at best.  There’s been a widespread belief that a serious exodus of Grantland talent could take place once Simmons was given the axe.  Morris is the first of Grantland’s big names to depart.

It’s hard to understate how important Morris was to Grantland as he immediately gave the site credibility on its pop culture flank.  Here was not just a talented writer, but a Pulitzer Prize winning critic, going to ESPN to write about the cultural arts.  That was a huge, huge deal for Grantland.  Now without Morris (and without Simmons), is Grantland a big enough draw to be able to attract those A-level writers?

Will others follow Morris out the door, either to a new Simmons venture or other places of employment?  Will Morris’ exit be the beginning of the floodgates opening or just one leak that can be plugged?  The answers to those questions may be the biggest factor in deciding the long-term future of Grantland.

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