Looking back at Grantland, ESPN decision sad, not necessarily wrong

The closing of Grantland, ESPN’s sports and culture site, has been the subject of a tremendous amount of coverage and speculation since it was announced Oct. 30. The affection many had for the site resulted in a predictable outpouring of anger from the Web site's readers, not to mention a number of fond farewells from journalists around the country.

Since ESPN was in the final steps of hiring a public editor when the Grantland decision was made in October, this version of "CSI: Grantland" comes three months after most of the obituaries and autopsies. And it comes without much additional public comment from ESPN executives, who largely referred me to statements made in the fall.

But in talking to a number of ESPN insiders and former Grantland staffers, it appears that ESPN’s shifting focus, unanticipated staffing challenges, and a culture clash between Grantland and ESPN led to the site closure. To varying degrees, each of these issues emanated from the May 8 announcement that ESPN would not renew the contract of Grantland founder Bill Simmons.

Those I spoke with at ESPN appeared aware of how important Simmons was to Grantland, yet it still seemed the network underestimated the impact his departure would have. The fact that some Grantland staffers followed Simmons to HBO, his new employer, was no surprise. But the number of senior departures was unexpected, thus complicating efforts to establish a leadership succession plan.

Some ESPN executives also were caught off guard by the anti-ESPN vibe they encountered at Grantland after Simmons left. In addition to those destabilizing factors, the network decided to re-emphasize its sports roots at the expense of cultural coverage (other than the mixture of sports, politics and data-driven journalism at FiveThirtyEight). If these issues weakened Grantland, it was the mid-October departures of four respected staff members that might have been the fatal blow. Once that occurred, Grantland became more of a luxury than a necessity, though that was a feeling its readers clearly did not share.

Before diving into the issues that led to its end, it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge the excellent work produced by Grantland. In a world overloaded with hot takes, traffic-driving slide shows and over-aggregation, Grantland gave itself time to breathe and produced an impressive body of work. It prided itself on good writing and good editing; it prioritized building a relationship with its audience; and it often had the guts to try something wacky. Measured by its quality and the loyalty of its readers, Grantland has to be considered a creative success.

But good work never guarantees a future, especially in these tumultuous times. Just ask those who used to work at The Dissolve. Or Gigaom. Or Valleywag. Or Defamer. Or Circa. Or, going back to print-only days, The National. Having a talented staff, a strong body of work and a loyal fan base are powerful defenses against extinction, but there are no bulletproof vests in media these days.

So, let’s more closely examine the issues that led to Grantland’s demise.

The departure of Bill Simmons

I’m not going to spend much time on the details of Simmons’ departure since it preceded Grantland’s shuttering by almost six months -- and also has been heavily chronicled. The circumstances are not much in dispute: ESPN President John Skipper decided not to renew Simmons’ contract, and ESPN passed that information exclusively to The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir. Simmons found out about his contract status on Twitter.

Whatever one thinks about the decision not to retain Simmons or how it was communicated, there’s little doubt his absence opened a leadership wound that was never adequately bandaged -- and maybe never could have been, considering the perception that Grantland was built for and around him.

Skipper acknowledged as much. “We lacked a full understanding of the bonding nature between Bill and those guys,” he told Vanity Fair’s James Andrew Miller in November.

And from that lack of understanding emanated the cultural and staffing issues that led to Grantland’s end.

Simmons did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.


There’s an old saying -- attributed alternatively to management guru Peter Drucker and auto executive Mark Fields -- that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I’ve always felt that statement was off the mark because culture also eats strategy for lunch, dinner and snacks. I’ve spent most of my 20-plus years in digital journalism attempting to change traditional journalism cultures, and I’ve still not run into one situation in which it was easier than anticipated. Bringing Grantland into the ESPN orbit would have been a complex undertaking. Some of that was due to Simmons’ departure, but it didn’t help that the Grantland staff seemed to be afflicted with an anti-ESPN -- or at least a separatist -- vibe that assured trouble from the start.

Location was surely part of that: Most Grantland staffers worked out of Los Angeles, whle ESPN management is largely housed on the East Coast, in Bristol, Connecticut and New York. According to multiple ESPN executives, Simmons also did not want Grantland staffers writing specifically for ESPN.com. Although ESPN.com did promote Grantland stories on the site, that was the extent of the connection between the two sites, which did not sit well in Bristol.

“Nobody at ESPN wanted to work with Simmons,” a high-ranking executive told Vanity Fair’s Miller in a piece published in October. “He was loathed throughout the company. He kept up a long-running diatribe on how terrible it was to work [at ESPN].”

In his own October podcast, Simmons put the onus on ESPN, which he claimed was not supporting the site: "I think all of us felt like these [ESPN] guys weren't trying to make us [at Grantland] succeed, which is a weird feeling when everyone is busting their ass."

“Bill Simmons’ suggestion that we did not support him is the whiniest and most asinine argument possible,” a high-ranking ESPN executive told Vanity Fair in October. “He got a free pass, he got good office space in L.A. When he asked for more employees and more office space, he got it. There is indignation about Bill’s lack of gratitude and his mischaracterizations of support.”

Despite these cultural tensions, ESPN initially felt it could manage Grantland without Simmons, and everyone I talked to at the network denied that the post-Simmons plan was to shutter the site. But Grantland staffers I talked to were never fully convinced of that. Either way, once Simmons departed, it was clear that Grantland’s staff and ESPN’s management were not on the same page.

Staffing challenges

The cultural issues almost certainly played a role in the staffing problems Grantland encountered in the months after Simmons left.

The initial attempt to replace Simmons came when ESPN appointed Chris Connelly as Grantland’s interim editor. Although Connelly had worked occasionally with Grantland, he was not part of its staff or culture. He was a veteran ESPN editor and writer, generally thought to be close to Skipper. His arrival didn’t alleviate any of the uneasiness of the Grantland staff. And, according to Vanity Fair’s Miller, Connelly’s style didn’t match Grantland’s.

“Connelly ... adopted a strategy from the get-go that had many a staff head being scratched,” Miller wrote in October, two weeks before Grantland’s closing. “Instead of saying, in effect, ‘You’re all doing good jobs and I’m here to support you,’ Connelly, a veteran of MTV News, Premiere, and ESPN TV newsmagazine E:60, chose to impart his own taste and style to the site, as was his right as editor in chief. His brand of journalism has taken Grantland in the direction of E:60, with a much heavier reliance on reporting. But it made for few shared sensibilities between the new boss and the largely millennial staff who love feature writing and analysis.”

Despite this uneasiness, Grantland marched on for three months.

“The staff was really scared for the future of the site,” Simmons said in an early November podcast. “They were scared for where it was going; they didn’t know who the leader was in place of me.”

In September, Grantland staffers started to move on, beginning when Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic Wesley Morris left to join The New York Times. By early October, ESPN had come to a decision about who should replace Simmons on a permanent basis: deputy editor Sean Fennessey. But he turned down the offer.

“We did make Sean Fennessey an offer to become editor in chief,” Skipper told Vanity Fair in November. “You ask, ‘If Sean had said yes, then would we have still made the same decision about the site,’ and the answer to that has to be no. We would have kept it going. There was no way we would have made that job offer to him if we weren’t going to keep going.”

Then, on Oct. 11, the bottom fell out, as Fennessey and three other well-respected Grantland editors -- Mallory Rubin, Chris Ryan and Juliet Litman -- resigned to join Simmons as part of his new HBO project.

“It was a dramatic impact,” said Bill Barnwell, who covered the NFL for Grantland and now does the same for ESPN.com. “Those four editors were at the heart of what Grantland was, and I'm not really sure what to compare the site to without them, since they were never replaced.”

“There’s no question we’re surprised at some of the defections. But they’re loyal to Bill,” an unnamed ESPN executive told Vanity Fair in October, before Grantland’s closing. “I think we’d be disingenuous to suggest they’re not.”

Once that foursome had departed, Grantland staff members felt the end was near. When asked if it felt like the site was dying by that point, Grantland reporter Bryan Curtis said, “Certainly toward the end, sure.”

Narrowing of focus

During the time between Simmons’ departure and the staffing exodus, ESPN had also decided to refocus on sports, pulling back from the culture coverage that was central to Grantland’s DNA. That was noted in a not-so-subtle way in ESPN’s official announcement on Grantland’s closing.

“Despite this change, the legacy of smart long-form sports story-telling and innovative short form video content will continue, finding a home on many of our other ESPN platforms,” the statement said. The key word was “sports.” No mention of culture.

That decision had been made a few months before the closing of Grantland, as network executives decided it made more sense to house popular sports writers such as Barnwell and NBA writer Zach Lowe on the core ESPN.com platform. This was another nail in Grantland’s coffin.

“For ESPN.com per se, the point of view is that we want to focus largely on sports,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN's vice president of global digital content. “We wanted some of the best voices in sports to be active and vital parts of ESPN’s print and digital platforms.”

Having Barnwell and Lowe on ESPN.com undoubtedly improves the site. Unfortunately, they are among the few Grantland staff members who remain in the ESPN family. Nonetheless, Barnwell says the move to ESPN has gone relatively well.

“I would say that ESPN has been accommodating, given the awkward circumstances of the transition,” he said. “It seems like there is a certain subset of the audience who read Grantland and audibly want my work to succeed on ESPN, which is sweet.”

In addition to Barnwell and Lowe, other former Grantland staffers still within ESPN include Katie Baker (espnW), Jordan Ritter Conn (ESPN.com), Ben Lindbergh (FiveThirtyEight) and Mike Goodman (ESPN FC). In addition, the current issue of ESPN the Magazine features an essay by Curtis on the significance of Super Bowl 50.

But while readers are happy some Grantland writers have stayed within ESPN, it’s clear that they feel differently without the front door Grantland provided to its particular style. Because of its broadness, ESPN.com is not as well-positioned to do that.

Reader Deon Jackson effectively sums up the thoughts of many who have written: “There simply isn't an easy process to get to those type of [analytical] articles. I believe that is why Grantland and FiveThirtyEight have/had shown some staying power,” he wrote. “It's not that the main ESPN website doesn't offer that type of article but it's not a fun process to uncover. I have no problem seeing the random current sports news bit that is primarily suggested on the homepage ... but I feel the analysis type articles are below the scores.”

“There were many virtues in Grantland’s storytelling, and I certainly understand the idea of being able to go through a doorway and finding a certain kind of content quickly,” Stiegman said. “With some of those contributors now on ESPN.com, our challenge -- through personalization, search, promotion and play-- is to highlight the best content we have.”

While money certainly played a role in the decision to close Grantland -- insofar as it almost always plays a role in any major business decision -- it does not appear to have been a driving factor. Yes, the closing of Grantland came on the heels of the layoffs of several hundred ESPN staffers. But, in the end, with the departures that already had occurred at Grantland, its budget was not a backbreaker inside ESPN’s massive business. It didn’t help, however, that the site was in the red. Said an ESPN executive: “It never posted break-even.”

“In the weighing of a decision like this, you look at the resources, the time, the energy necessary to do this well and balance that with the things you get from it,” Skipper told Vanity Fair in the fall. “This was never a financial matter for us. The benefits were having a halo brand and being Bill Simmons-related… I loved the site. It pained me to make the decision. It was not without difficulty.”

The decision to close Grantland was the basis of most consumer anger, but other readers pointed to Skipper’s statement in a May 12 article by Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch: “We are committed to Grantland,” Skipper said then. “We are going to continue to do it and we are going to continue to do it at the same level both financially and staff-wise. Bill did a great job building that site, and I think he and I will be on the same page in suggesting we want to build on that legacy.”

This quote has been cited by many as proof that ESPN was not publicly honest about its plans for Grantland. But there’s no evidence that ESPN intended to close the site in May. Either way, let’s face it, the question put Skipper in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. If you’re asked whether you’re committed to anything long term -- a coach, a player, a city -- either you say yes and risk later looking disingenuous, or you hedge and everyone panics.

Interestingly, some of the factors that led to Grantland’s demise were noted in a piece by Nicholas Jackson in The Atlantic, published soon after the 2011 launch announcement of the site. Wrote Jackson: “I think the new site is doomed. And I suspect ESPN's executives will recognize that in only a month or two even if they refuse to admit it until millions of dollars have been spent.”

Jackson was wrong about the timing, but he did presage some of the challenges that Grantland eventually faced.

“If the writers can pull off what ESPN is telling us they will,” Jackson wrote, “then they'll be creating content that deserves to live on ESPN's existing digital pages. A smarter place to invest would have been the primary content that the Disney-owned empire is already putting out every day instead of presenting us with an alternative.”

ESPN eventually came to agree with this sentiment.

Wrote Jackson: “ESPN will drive this site into the ground. It's only a matter of time before [Simmons] leaves. ‘I don't know, I think I have one more big sellout of my career,’ Simmons told [New York Times Magazine’s Jonathan] Mahler. Well, at least ESPN didn't name the site The SimmonsPost; naming it Grantland will make it easier to extract Simmons from the venture when the time comes.”

Here, he was partially off base. Yes, the name Grantland was indeed inoculated from Simmons’ departure. But its soul wasn’t. And now, all that’s left is a legacy.

“It was in that tiny-to-medium size group of publications that really connected with a generation of people on this emotional level as well as a journalistic level,” said Curtis, who wrote features on sports and culture for Grantland. “When it went away, people thought they lost a pal ... They knew the writers on a more personal level and they would go strange places with them. It’s a place where even places with more journalistic chops than us never reach.”

Said Barnwell: “I think Grantland's legacy is that it mattered enough that people care about its legacy.”

After talking to a number of people from Grantland and from ESPN for this column, it seems that the ending of this story was essentially written the day Simmons departed. There are many who legitimately decried Grantland’s shuttering and still lament its absence today. But Grantland faced a future with only one absolute: It would no longer be what it had been.

Grantland wasn’t the same Grantland without Simmons, whatever one thinks of his stewardship or how he managed the relationship with ESPN. And once that already-altered Grantland was faced with key staff losses and the minimizing of culture coverage, it was clear that ESPN would have to forge ahead with a Grantland that carried its name but not its ethos.

At that point, closure was predictable, if not inevitable.

Was closing Grantland the right decision? To me, the question misses the point. For reasons cited above, there really wasn’t much of a decision left to make. ESPN and Simmons share some of the blame.

ESPN’s decision not to appoint a Grantland veteran to quickly replace Simmons hurt, and, although the network was caught off guard by a harsher anti-ESPN vibe than anticipated, it seems that should not have been a surprise, considering the high-profile battles between Simmons and ESPN in the year before his departure. Those battles contributed to the Grantland staff never feeling quite secure about the site’s future. Essentially, the six months between Simmons’ departure and the site’s closing was merely the time required for all the ingredients to boil over.

To me -- and the many readers who still flood my inbox with expressions of sadness at its absence -- the closing of Grantland made for an extremely sad day in journalism. But that doesn’t automatically make closing it the wrong decision. Because, in a roundabout way, ESPN might have done Grantland’s legacy a favor. The site died still young and vibrant, probably exactly the way its staff and readers would prefer.