One of the biggest questions in the wake of ESPN suspending the publication of Grantland is “Why now?” If higher-ups didn’t think the site would work without Bill Simmons, why not axe it soon after the May decision that he wasn’t coming back? If they truly believed their oft-repeated lines that the site was bigger than Simmons, that they were committed to it, and that it would thrive without him, why give in after just a few months rather than try to keep it going, either as a successful enterprise in its own right or as something that would let them one-up Simmons?
The timing here is of critical importance, and there are four likely reasons for it; 1) the wider ESPN budgetary and job cuts that have pushed them to retrench around their core platforms, 2) the wider ESPN move away from prominent commentators and highly-creative expressions, 3) Simmons’ departure and the moves of replacement editor-in-chief Chris Connelly somewhat changing what Grantland was and alienating some of its fans, and 4) the early-October Simmons raid to hire four key editors at once that may have forced ESPN to make a call sooner than they might have otherwise.
Each of those factors deserves further examination, but they all played a role in both this move and its timing. The other vital question that arises here is if this decision will come back to haunt ESPN in the long run.
First, there are the wider ESPN cuts to consider. As part of a need to make up billions annually thanks to rising rights fees and falling subscriber numbers, Bristol parted ways with up to 350 employees in their most recent round of layoffs in October. That’s about 4.3 per cent of their global workforce. This wasn’t just a trimming of unnecessary fat, either, as many of those employees were long-tenured and well-respected throughout the industry. That’s an example of how there’s a harder look at the bottom line across ESPN and a growing movement to focus on only what’s seen as essential.
We don’t have a real sense of if Grantland was profitable or not (and that probably depends on what numbers you’re considering), but reading between the lines here in Connelly’s Q&A with Richard Deitsch at Sports Illustrated, we have the insight that it didn’t make money:
I think the site continued to do fantastic editorial, for which I want to be sure not to take credit. That was the product of the editors and writers who were there every day of the week. But in this economic climate you will be very closely scrutinized if you are not a money-making operation.
Grantland (and the pop-culture elements of it in particular) wasn’t a core business for ESPN. In bountiful years, it would have been much simpler to keep Grantland around as a bet on the future and a boost to Bristol’s reputation, even without huge immediate profitability. In an era of overall cost-cutting and retrenchment, it’s easier to see it being put on the chopping block.
Beyond the business reasons for moving away from Grantland, there are also editorial reasons ESPN may not have been as high on it as they once were. There’s strong evidence that Bristol has been moving away from opinionated star personalities, with the decisions to part ways with Simmons, Keith Olbermann and Colin Cowherd this summer (and Jason Whitlock shortly afterwards) a key part of that. That’s a reversal from the plan a few years ago, where Whitlock was brought in, Olbermann was brought back and Simmons was given a big extension. The different strategy can be partly chalked up to changing economic circumstances (in these lean times, Bristol has arguably been taking more of a “Moneyball” approach, bringing back a host of talented but less-prominent contributors rather than shelling out the big bucks for the top names), but that doesn’t entirely explain it.
The other key factor in the editorial reasons for moving away from Grantland is some of the issues that arose from big-name talent. Simmons’ and Olbermann’s NFL criticisms were thought to have brought ESPN a worse Monday Night Football schedule, Simmons frequently clashed with management, Whitlock’s mismanagement of The Undefeated created plenty of negative headlines, and Cowherd’s racially-tinged commentary also generated problems. Most of Grantland’s writers weren’t as prominent as these names, but the site did have plenty of articles that featured much more opinionated commentary than what you’d find in a typical ESPN.com piece. Moreover, strong takes can help turn lesser-known writers into stars, and the bidding for stars is something ESPN doesn’t seem particularly interested in these days.
It’s not that ESPN is abandoning provocative and potentially-problematic commentary or highly-paid commentators altogether (see the continued existence of First Take et al). Rather, it’s more that Bristol may be deciding to dial down how much commentary it’s offering and restrict who’s providing that commentary. Big-name opinionated personalities caused plenty of headaches and bidding wars for ESPN. Grantland wasn’t quite the same as any of those situations, but it’s easy to see the larger company being less enthusiastic about it as a result of those occurrences.
Some of Connelly’s comments may be relevant here, and they also help to explain why Grantland lost some of its writers and fans post-Simmons. In particular, Connelly said “I really did think reporting was the key to doing even better stuff than we were doing.” It’s easy to praise reporting in the abstract, and well-reported material has plenty of values (in fact, many of Grantland’s pre-Connelly pieces involved strong reporting), but it’s worth considering that not everything needs thorough, heavy reporting. Moreover, a move towards more reporting (and thus, more quotes) in pieces takes away writers’ time from crafting opinions and is going to reduce the amount of opinion in those pieces if the overall piece length remains the same. Moving Grantland more towards reporting (and thus, more towards standard ESPN.com pieces) and further away from some of the more quirky opinionated pieces they had done in the Simmons era illustrates both how ESPN may have been looking for less commentary in general and why Connelly wasn’t an ideal fit to run Grantland. (He may have clamped down on creativity, too; the decision to cut tributes to departing staffers from podcasts certainly would appear to speak to that.)
The discussion of post-Simmons, Connelly-era Grantland is an important one, as it’s worth considering exactly what ESPN was evaluating keeping or axing here. Many of the tributes to Grantland have revolved around pieces that ran in the Simmons era, and while there were plenty of great writers still around and quality pieces produced after Simmons left, there were lots of notable departures as well (Rembert Browne, Wesley Morris, Dan Fierman, Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin and Chris Ryan, amongst others). Beyond that, while Simmons’ personal involvement may not have mattered too much for all readers (some were more interested in what Grantland itself provided than in it being a Simmons venture; from this corner, my frequent Grantland consumption stayed about the same after his exit, and I didn’t see a noticeable dropoff in the site’s quality), it certainly mattered to some, especially those who were big fans of Simmons. Here are some comments on that front from an interesting piece from Kolby Solinsky (which is worth reading in full):
Seriously, the post-Simmons Grantland was very often like reading an imitation of the real one – it was Community without Dan Harmon, Friends after Joey hooked up with Rachel.
I won’t blame Chris Connelly for that, but I will blame ESPN. They look awful and have for some time, not really for how they let Grantland whither or for how they canned Simmons, but their reputation as the worldwide leader in anything is now nothing more than a powerful slogan on a poster. If anything, ESPN’s regime has shown a complete misunderstanding of what creative even is. Their fraidy-cat approach to anything lovable and organic, even when it’s their own stuff, has made them ‘the NFL’ of the media business – and they probably have no idea why that’s an insult.
…Really, it’s a great thing that Grantland is gone – because it’s now a real martyr for itself, a beyond-the-grave middle finger to the apparatus that tried to own it.
Because if Grantland was forced to continue lobotomized, as it’s seemed sometimes for the past few months, or if it relented and was blended into the rest of the interchangeable vanilla stuff aired from Bristol… well, THAT would have been the tragedy.
Grantland as a willing subservient to ESPN? I’d rather read what happens to Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman. Both are against the iconic form of the content and characters we’ve come to trust, even revere.
Solinsky’s take there is provocative, and not completely endorsed here. From this corner, the form of Grantland wasn’t generally worse after Simmons left. Some of Connelly’s decisions (and the push towards further reporting and away from opinion and creativity in particular) may have hurt it a bit, but this didn’t really feel like “Zombie Grantland” to all of us. However, his opinions are worth noting, especially as they may be an indication of what other ardent Simmons fans thought. If a substantial portion of that group was alienated by the moves Connelly made and what Grantland became post-Simmons, that hurts the case to keep it. From the outside, we obviously don’t have the traffic numbers, but if many of Simmons’ fans didn’t come around as often after he left, it may have been easier to axe it.
If Grantland was hovering on the edge, the early-October Simmons raid to nab Fennessey, Litman, Rubin and Ryan may have been what pushed it over. That certainly seems to be the conclusion Deadspin’s Greg Howard draws here, and there’s some merit to it. Connelly told Deitsch continuing to pump out Grantland’s content without those key editors was difficult, and said he requested new hires to fill the void from ESPN. That may have pushed Bristol to cut their losses sooner than they would have otherwise.
Saying Simmons “put his beef with [ESPN president John] Skipper above the jobs of dozens of people,” as one anonymous Grantland source told Howard, seems a bit much; those editors are clearly talented, but they’re not irreplaceable, and ESPN could have filled that void (and quickly) if they’d wanted to. Thus, it’s far too simplistic to say that Simmons killed Grantland (especially as ESPN announced seven re-signings in the wake of his raid; that would indicate a desire to keep on pushing forward with the site even after those losses). However, his raid (and the other recent departures of Brown, Morris and Fierman) may have been a significant factor in the timing of its demise. ESPN has declared an intent to honor all Grantland contracts, so without so many big-name departures, they may have just pushed on with the site until the majority of those expired and reevaluated it then.
So, with all of those challenges, did ESPN make the right decision to axe Grantland? From this perspective, no. Yes, from a purely bottom-line approach, Grantland likely wasn’t ESPN’s strongest property right now, and that makes it an easier cut in times of austerity. Yes, that’s even easier as part of a larger move away from highly-opinionated commentary, and when you also factor in that Connelly wasn’t the most natural fit as EIC and that the site suffered losses of both writers and fans after Simmons exited (especially with his October raid). Those factors do speak against it.
However, Grantland seemed to still be producing quality content and still drawing traffic (more than ever, according to ESPN’s own press releases), and it provided ESPN with substantial benefits. It led them draw respected writers who weren’t necessarily a fit under the ESPN.com banner and give those writers a place to shine, and it drew a significant audience that wasn’t regularly going to ESPN.com. That’s a young, tech-savvy, and influential audience, and that’s an audience it’s important for ESPN to reach; a lot of your standard ESPN.com pieces aren’t going to do that, certainly not in the same way some of Grantland’s best content did.
Moreover, pulling the plug on Grantland at this point takes away a growing venture, and one that could have been the key indicator that ESPN can be more than just scores and recaps. It also hurts the company’s reputation (see the outpouring of tributes and the thoughts on what this means for journalism) and casts a shadow over the remaining “affinity sites,” FiveThirtyEight and The Undefeated.
Grantland at this point may not have been a great bottom-line producer for ESPN, but it certainly could have become one in time, and even if it never turned a huge profit, keeping it going would have had plenty of audience-attraction, visibility and PR benefits for the company (and avoided much of the criticism they’re now getting). Short-term factors may have led to the decision to close Grantland now, but from this corner, it’s the wrong long-term move, and one ESPN may regret down the road.