As you’ve probably heard by now ESPN has shut down Grantland, the sister site that was started and run by Bill Simmons before he left/got fired earlier this year. There has been much weeping an gnashing of teeth over the past few days, as what was a source of superior and very highbrow writing is no more. You add in the shedding of high profile talents like Simmons, Keith Olbermann, Colin Cowherd, and Jason Whitlock along with the recent layoffs of over 300 midlevel staffers and this is shaping up to be quite a purge over the last few months. The toll for spending so much to secure rights fees for several sports leagues has gotten very high indeed. What do I think about it?
It sucks for the writers (and us)
Although ESPN has said they will honor the contracts of Grantland’s writers, they still have to find work now. Some already had other gigs they were working but some others are going to be on the street for a minute. And as a reader this is going to be a hole. There were things you could find at Grantland that just weren’t being done elsewhere. Whether it was the pop culture pieces or the pro wrestling retrospectives Grantland gave serious treatment to a lot of the other things that sports fans are into. And the writing there was largely devoid of the rumor-mongering and hot takes that plague so many sites nowadays. Now like any outlet that aspires to be something superior they were often very pretentious and too meta-contrarian for their own good but that’s the price you pay to get more intellectually stimulating reading.
As you can see in this SI piece, Grantland was closed largely for reasons of finance. To be blunt, they didn’t make a lot of money for ESPN. That’s how the business works. Hiring and keeping the roster of writers that were at Grantland wasn’t cheap, and the sites traffic was not high enough to bring in the right amount of ad revenue. One of the downsides to going highbrow is that you often don’t move as much product. The other thing is that ESPN’s web traffic is likely not what it once was (I don’t have the numbers so I could be dead wrong on that). You can get the basic factual information they present (scores and stats) in a million different places now, and their opinion pieces carry a shadow, fair or unfair, of corporate pablum served up to please their broadcast partners more than enlighten us. So if the parent site struggles then everything under it will. It’s not a commitment to hot takes and argument shows like First Take and Around the Horn over real writing. If the highbrow stuff sells there will be room for it.
Bill Simmons is no victim
Some of the early twitter comments I saw were sympathetic for Grantland’s creator at the news his prized project was being closed down. Some even suspected that it was being done as a way to take a shot at Simmons. While I don’t doubt the ability of rich 50-something year old men to be as petty as schoolchildren I doubt that was happened here. It turns out that Simmons poached four top editors to the site for his own new project, and did it in such a way as to cause maximum damage to his former home. So the likelihood that, public statements aside, he was crying that much over Grantland’s demise is pretty small. In one of my earlier pieces here I said Bill Simmons was like CM Punk and I stand by that. Both guys are talented and smart but act out in ways that make it hard to maintain much sympathy over the long run.
So that’s it for Grantland. It was mostly fun while it lasted and let’s hope the people there land on their feet.