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How ESPN and Bill Simmons Killed Grantland


November 1, 2015

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Friday was a bad day for readers of longform writing and sports journalism.

ESPN announced via press release that it was ‘suspending’ Grantland, one of the best longform sports writing platforms on the internet. The website, launched in 2011, was the brainchild between the network and former employee Bill Simmons.

In the four years since the launch Grantland became the ESPN platform to go to for feature writing thanks in part to the group of writers that Simmons was able to get to work for the site. From Zach Lowe to Holly Anderson, Grantland was filled with great talent that were given the freedom to not just do straight sports writing by Simmons. Guest writers such as Dave Zirin of The Nation magazine also helped expand the reach of the site. It was seen as a success to readers.

Unfortunately for Grantland it wasn’t successful enough to survive the growing war between its creators.

ESPN, mandated by parent company Disney, began making plans to slash its budget at the same time it was negotiating a contract renewal with Simmons. Due to his success with Grantland and other ESPN ventures like the ’30 For 30′ documentary series, Simmons might have felt that he was becoming untouchable within the network and it showed in the years leading up to those negotiations.

In 2011 he contributed to a book about the network Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN in which he took shots at colleagues such as Chris Berman and Mike Tirico. He began criticizing the one network’s main partners, the NFL, and its commissioner Roger Goodell over the Ray Rice scandal in a September 2014 podcast and dared ESPN to suspend him for it, which the network did for three weeks.

Two months later he went on a Twitter rant aimed at ESPN’s flagship radio program Mike & Mike for using a segment of his podcast without having him on. Then on May 7 he criticized Goodell harshly again over the Deflategate scandal on NBC Sports Radio’s Dan Patrick Show. The next day, ESPN president John Skipper announced the network wouldn’t renew Simmons’ contract.

Then the network took it one step further. On May 15 rather than wait for the contract to expire in September, ESPN and Simmons worked out an agreement where he would not appear on programming or be affiliated in any aspect with the network effective immediately. Skipper tried to paint the picture that the parting with Simmons was cordial, but it was evident that bad blood was there. ESPN at the time stated that Grantland would not be affected by Simmons’ firing and named Chris Connelly interim editor-in-chief on May 27.

Soon though news of the budget cuts, $100 million to be done in 2016 and $250 million in 2017, became known. The network chose to not renew the contract of television host Keith Olbermann on July 8 followed by doing the same with radio host Colin Cowherd, who went to rival Fox Sports after failing to reach an agreement with ESPN. On September 21 news broke that up to 300 jobs would be cut, a process that began to be implemented a month later.

Simmons, after a little more than two months with no media home, inked a deal with HBO on July 22 where he would host a weekly show starting in 2016 along with his podcast being revived on October 1. He will also help produce documentaries and have a new website built for him.

While all this was happening Grantland was seeing major changes. Connelly, a respected award winning journalist in his own right, had a management style that didn’t mix with the culture Simmons had infused into the website. This led to a small but steady exodus of writers and editors, the most devastating being that of editors Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin, and Chris Ryan. All four left Grantland on October 9 to join Simmons on his new project. Shortly after Dan Fierman, the website’s editorial director, left as well to join MTV.

All of this helped in the demise of Grantland.

As the ESPN budget cuts were being drafted the site was protected because Simmons was there. When Grantland was created it was seen as a gift to him by the network for bringing in revenue and he was able to bring much of Grantland’s talent aboard by offering big salaries. Once Simmons left those very salaries became noticeable to ESPN, and more importantly Disney, accountants. The network may have wanted to keep the website alive just to spite Simmons but orders from above made it impossible.

Simmons did his part in this as well. Grantland wasn’t without hiccups under his leadership, the biggest being the handling of an article titled ‘Dr V’s Magical Putter’ that outed its subject, Essay Lane Vanderbilt, as a transgender woman without her consent and possibly led to her suicide before the article’s publication.

There was also constant complaining by him to ESPN about how the website was not being marketed hard enough which only further eroded a crumbling relationship and he didn’t stop once it was over. He launched more attacks at ESPN’s NFL coverage once his podcast was relaunched and as Deadspin reported Friday coordinated the October 9 exodus on the condition that none of the four editors would tell anyone at Grantland about their departure until that very day so the website would be hardest hit. Simmons let his feud with his former boss be so personal that he helped kill their creation and put many people that had nothing to do with the feud out of work.

What’s most damning about this is not the war between the two parties, nor is it the budget cuts in general. It’s the culture of the content that ESPN has chosen to stick with. Over the years the network has slowly stepped away from straight news coverage as their backbone and put more emphasis on opinion.

What started with thoughtful discussions in shows like Sports Reporters and Pardon the Interruption slowly morphed into an environment where opinion became more about moralizing and shouting resulting in what is now known as the era of the ‘Hot Take.’

No format and person embodies the ‘Hot Take’ culture at ESPN more than Skip Bayless and his show First Take. Originally he was brought in along with Woody Paige to give a straight news element to ESPN2‘s morning show Cold Pizza in 2004. Bayless’ contrarian, moralizing style and refusal to admit he’s wrong no matter the amount of evidence or logic presented to him stuck out almost immediately.

The ‘1st & 10’ segment he & Paige occupied slowly began taking over the show and survived its transition to First Take. Not only did it survive but the segment became so popular that it is now the entirety of the show with Bayless as the centerpiece and the most popular show on ESPN2.

The sensationalist approach of Bayless has not stayed inside the First Take sphere as now the vast majority of opinion programming on ESPN, whether radio or television, now has the ‘Hot Take’ as a staple.

Grantland was a space on the ESPN universe where one could away from the ‘Hot Take’ and the pieces (including this one) lamenting its end show how much that was appreciated. It also shows that good longform sports writing still has a place in the era of social media applications like Twitter and Vine.

The website could have been saved. ESPN could have done with Simmons what it did with Cowherd and allow his content and platforms to be transferred to his new employer, this case being HBO. That would have removed the salaries of Grantland staff from ESPN’s books and would have been seen as a bigger coup for now outgoing HBO Sports president Ken Hershman.

Sadly, that is not the case.

ESPN will honor the contracts of Grantland writers and move them to other assignments, but they’ll likely not have the same freedom to write what they want.

It is something that will be missed in the sports world.

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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