Goodbye Grantland: Inside ESPN’s Decision to Kill Bill Simmons’ Site

Financial losses, talent exodus – and maybe even a dash of Disney spite shuts the doors on ESPN’s digital magazine venture

ESPN did not offer to sell Grantland back to its founder, the outspoken sportscaster Bill Simmons, TheWrap has learned.

In fact, the Disney-owned network didn’t try to sell the digital sports magazine to anyone.

The announcement that ESPN ended the life of its website Grantland “effective immediately” on Friday sent shockwaves through the media.

Was the decision intended to send a message? Disney lost tens of millions of dollars that it invested in the site, and Grantland has never made a profit, according to knowledgeable individuals. Given that reality, the choice to shut the long-form journalism site rather than sell it felt like a message sent by ESPN chief John Skipper to his former employee Simmons.

Bill Simmons

Grantland

 

The two had a highly contentious falling out leading to his departure in May after Simmons publicly criticized the network over its coverage of Tom Brady‘s Deflategate and its treatment of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

It was the end to what started as an unusual journalistic love story.

When Simmons launched Grantland in 2011, he was arguably ESPN’s most important single personality, the co-host on NBA Countdown and a prolific and gifted writer. That meant he could demand a salary believed to be anywhere from $3 to $5 million annually and propel Skipper’s massive investment in a passion project named after sportswriter Grantland Rice.

The site never turned a profit. Annual ad revenue for Grantland is believed to be about $6 million a year, including the Web site and a Simmons podcast, but since his departure from ESPN, Simmons has rolled out his own podcast, according to Business Insider.

“It was not profitable but that was not a priority,” an insider with knowledge of the situation told TheWrap.

The site, packed with prestigious bylines, commanded 7 million monthly unique viewers at its height in May, just before Simmons’ dismissal, according to Comscore.

What helped make Grantland disposable was the fact that more than 90 percent of its traffic was simply duplicated from ESPN.com — especially after the recent decision to move away from pop culture.

The advertisers weren’t there, but the costs were.

When Simmons left, other other high-profile staffers followed, including Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Wesley Morris to The New York Times and staff writer Rembert Browne to New York magazine. ESPN executives asked themselves, “Where does that leave us?” There was no more Simmons ego to stroke, and only so much opportunity for a site that broke no news and had no game scores.

ESPN will continue to own Grantland as a brand and domain name, but the parent company has very little use for it. Grantland.com will remain up as an archive and some of the sports writers will transition elsewhere — like ESPN.com, The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and ESPN the Magazine. The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports has decided it isn’t in the pop culture business, after all — but they’re hanging on to the brand just in case it becomes useful elsewhere.

Approximately 40 people will be affected by the closure, including full-time staff, contract writers and freelancers. ESPN will honor all contracts for Grantland employees, although many of them were of the short-term variety. Simmons’ replacement as editor-in-chief, Chris Connelly, will return to his prior role at “SportsCenter” and the newsmagazine “E:60.”

David Jacoby, who ran the audio/visual aspect of Grantland will continue to use his talents across the ESPN Film’s family of platforms, along with his new national radio show with Jalen Rose called “Jalen & Jacoby.”

As for FiveThirtyEight and The Undefeated — which focuses on the interaction of race, sports and culture — ESPN remains committed to them, according to an insider, despite the sites often being perceived as similar to Grantland and under the same Exit 31 umbrella. ESPN recently hired Kevin Merida from The Washington Post to run The Undefeated following Jason Whitlock’s departure, while Nate Silver’s analytical site FiveThirtyEight is growing — especially heading into the presidential election cycle.

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