What Was Bill Simmons’s Grantland, Is Now ESPN’s Wasteland

  • Graphic Madeleine Gendreau

It’s been almost two weeks since sports-intergalactical-enterprise, ESPN announced that they would be shutting down their premier website Grantland, saddening most sportswriting readers alike.

Amid the circus that is ESPN—the biggest sports channel in North America—stood Grantland, where long form articles and features blossomed. Grantland’s blend of sports, pop culture and general interests caught the eye of many readers, not all of which were sports fans. Its writers were amongst the best on the web, such as Pulitzer prize winner Wesley Morris, Holly Anderson and many others.

There are a few reasons that explain the death of Grantland, but none are more important than the dismissal of their editor-in-chief Bill Simmons in May, and his subsequent contract with rival channel, HBO. Simmons was at ESPN for more than 14 years and was the second highest paid employee, only behind Monday Night Countdown host Chris Berman, before his departure, which occurred before his contract was due to expire in September.

Simmons had reportedly asked to be paid $6 million annually on his next contract, $1 million more than what he was previously paid according to The New York Times. James Andrew Miller, author of Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN, however, said that Simmons was actually paid between $3.4 and $4 million.

Grantland was launched in June 2011, and from the beginning there seemingly was a small discord between the Massachusetts-born writer, Simmons, and the network, which was based in Bristol, Conn. ESPN named the original reporting outlet for former sportswriter Grantland Rice, without consulting Simmons.

That same month, Nicholas Jackson, the former associate editor at The Atlantic and now editor-in-chief at the Pacific Standard magazine, wrote: “Simmons will lose this battle […] and ESPN will drive this site into the ground.” While Jackson didn’t specify when the demise would happen, Simmons would last almost four years to the month with Grantland.

A week before Jackson presented his opinion, in an article for The New York Times Magazine, writer Jonathan Mahler had described Simmons newfound relationship with the network as “dysfunctionally codependent” because ESPN needed the best sportswriter in the business and Simmons needed the biggest platform. It was a valuable, yet somewhat acrimonious link.

Simmons’s talent was obvious. He was not only a great writer, but also the creator of the Emmy-winning 30 for 30 documentary series which chronicled poignant stories such as the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in the United Kingdom or the unbelievable Rand University, documenting National Football League star, wide receiver Randy Moss, and his upbringing in the small town of Rand, West Virginia.

The straw that broke the camel’s back between Simmons and ESPN happened on May 7, a day before he was fired (coincidence?), when he questioned controversial NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s leadership on radio host and former ESPN anchor Dan Patrick’s radio show, saying: “He has handled so many things so badly.”

It wasn’t the first time he would point fingers at arguably the most powerful sports executive in the world. In September 2014, Simmons bashed Goodell for the commissioner’s response to the infamous Ray Rice scandal, where the then-Baltimore Ravens running back was caught hitting his wife in an elevator on an Atlantic City hotel surveillance camera, on his very popular podcast The B.S. Report. Simmons called Goodell “a liar” and argued that if “you put him up on a lie detector test, that guy would fail.”

ESPN has close ties with the NFL, as the network has a deal in place that will allow them to broadcast Monday Night Football until 2021 for a reported $15.2 billion.

The numbers are thousands of miles away from Grantland’s revenues. At this year’s Vanity Fair New Establishment summit, Simmons said that the website “was probably, like, around even” in terms of profits.

Grantland, however, was more than just “one of ESPN’s websites”. It offered raw original reporting from quality reporters, guided by a thoughtful and high-praised editor-in-chief in Simmons. Author and former ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte explains this clearly in a piece he wrote for The Nation on Nov. 2.

“Their writings turned college students on to journalism,” Lipsyte writes. But Grantland’s “shining legacy” is also “proving that its audience would read 10,000-word stories on their screens; the so-called long form has been taken up all over the Internet.”

The success can arguably be attributed to Simmons himself. His guidance mirrors the one of a leader of a political party who reaches out to members on all parts of the political spectrum. His departure left Grantland looking like a dismantled organization.

October was the fifth month without Simmons, and his departure came with a wave of walkouts. In September, one writer, Wesley Morris, left for The New York Times. Soon after, former deputy editor Sean Fennessey, who refused ESPN’s offer to take Simmons’s responsibilities, left alongside fellow contributors Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin and Chris Ryan for HBO to work with Simmons on his upcoming project that may air in 2016.

Chris Connelly, who had previously worked for ABC (20/20, Good Morning America, Nightline) and MTV, was named editor-in-chief in Simmons’s place from May to November. In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch on November 2, Connelly plainly stated that the site wasn’t “making money.”

“In this economic climate you will be very closely scrutinized if you are not a money-making operation,” he added.

Vanity Fair described Connelly’s five-month-long tenure as “five long months of chaos and aftershock.” From the moment Simmons left, Grantland’s popularity diminished day by day, as shown in a Business Insider chart calculating the number of times the word Grantland was typed on Google

Grantland may have been shut down for the last few days, but it perished when Simmons left his office for HBO.

On June 11, 2011, Simmons wrote for the first time about his creation in “Welcome to Grantland”.

“Writing is a fundamentally lonely thing,” he wrote. “It’s just you and a blank Microsoft Word document. The process can drive people crazy. (And has.) It’s much more fun to create something with other people. It just is.”

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