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ESPN Nixes Grantland as the Post-Simmons Era Continues

ESPN Nixes Grantland as the Post-Simmons Era Continues

UPDATE: ESPN has suspended publication of Grantland, the popular website founded by Bill Simmons, effective immediately. As early as the announcement that Simmons was parting ways with ESPN, in May, it appeared that Grantland’s mixture of sports, cultural criticism, and in-depth reportage might not survive the post-Simmons era. Sadly, this assessment proved to be correct. (SportsBusiness Journal’s Eric Fisher reports that ESPN will honor existing Grantland contracts, and wants to use the site’s writers elsewhere.) Here’s the full statement from ESPN:

“Effective immediately we are suspending the publication of
Grantland. After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our
time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a
broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.

Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas,
original thinking and fun. We are grateful to those who made it so.
Bill Simmons was passionately committed to the site and proved to be an
outstanding editor with a real eye for talent. Thanks to all the other
writers, editors and staff who worked very hard to create content with
an identifiable sensibility and consistent intelligence and quality. We
also extend our thanks to Chris Connelly who stepped in to help
us maintain the site these past five months as he returns to his prior

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.”

Simmons responded to the news via Twitter, writing, “I loved everyone I worked with at G[rantland] and loved what we built. Watching
good/kind/talented people get treated so callously [is] simply appalling.”

EARLIER: Bill Simmons, the irreverent columnist who brought sports media giant ESPN into the world of Hollywood culture and indie filmmaking with the founding of his popular website, Grantland, and the creation of the network’s acclaimed documentary series, “30 for 30,” will end his relationship with the network when his contract expires later this year, the New York Times reported this morning. “I decided today that we are not going to renew Bill Simmons’ contract. We have been in negotiations and it was clear it was time to move on,” ESPN president John Skipper said in a statement. “ESPN remains committed to Grantland and we have a strong team in place.”

Industry figures are already placing bets as to where Simmons will land. Vice co-founder and CEO Shane Smith tweeted a job offer, while Sports on Earth senior writer Will Leitch argues that Simmons’ best options are to strike out on his own again or partner with Bleacher Report, which has an established relationship with the NBA and Turner Broadcasting. Though leaving behind the ESPN cash cow is sure to hurt, Simmons, who according to one report was seeking $6 million a year in recent contract negotiations before the network balked, is unlikely to be unemployed long. (Simmons eventually landed at HBO.)

Whether Simmons’ meteoric rise to prominence during his 14-year tenure at the network will leave a lasting imprint, however, remains to be seen. What will ESPN look like in the post-Simmons era?

Despite indications that Simmons and ESPN parted ways over pay, the issue at hand isn’t money. Live sports remain the last sure thing in television: the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Olympics, and the World Cup, to name but four major events, drive immense ratings—putting the brakes on the rise of “cord-cutters” in the process—and long-term broadcast rights agreements are likely to keep advertisers, networks, and sporting organizations in high cotton for years to come. Simmons’ influence, by way of his “B.S. Report” podcast, “30 for 30,” and Grantland, has always been marginal in terms of ESPN’s profit model. “Monday Night Football” creates revenue. Simmons created prestige.

“30 for 30,” for instance, which Simmons co-created with Connor Schell in 2009 to commemorate the network’s 30th anniversary, has since produced approximately 100 episodes across multiple franchises, including “30 for 30 Shorts,” “30 for 30: Soccer Stories,” “ESPN Films Presents,” and the women-centered “Nine for IX.” Rather than replicate the flat style and greatest-hits nostalgia of the old “Sportscentury,” “30 for 30” features fresh angles on important sports stories that reach well beyond the playing field.

Indie filmmakers, including Albert Maysles, John Singleton, Daniel Gordon, and others, have produced innovative, stylish portraits of everything from the day of O.J. Simpson’s infamous car chase (Brett Morgen, “June 17, 1994”) and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan (Nanette Burstein, “The Price of Gold”) to Venus Williams’ quest for gender pay equality in tennis (Ava DuVernay, “Venus Vs.”) and the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 (Ryan Fleck, “The Day the Series Stopped”). Under Simmons’ influence, ESPN has become one of television’s leaders in nonfiction filmmaking, behind only HBO and PBS.

Similarly, Grantland, through its “Hollywood Prospectus” vertical, has become a major player in entertainment journalism and film and television criticism, attracting must-read writers like Pulitzer Prize-winner Wesley Morris, Andy Greenwald, and Mark Harris. As Leitch writes, Grantland “opened the door for SB Nation, and Bleacher Report, and Deadspin,” but it also emerged as a competitor of Indiewire and other publications in the quest to attract online readers hungry for smart analysis of popular culture. Along with “30 for 30,” the website, named after famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, lent ESPN’s money-making machinery a highbrow patina. With Simmons, ESPN wasn’t just the “worldwide leader in sports,” it was hip as hell.

That’s not to say Simmons was perfect. As his stature and power at ESPN grew, he lost the regular-Joe charm of his “Sports Guy” persona under a layer of self-aggrandizing smarm. He’s been accused of cozying up a little too close to the celebrities and star athletes he covers, and his regular public spats with the network—most recently last year, when he was suspended for three weeks after calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell “a liar” on his podcast—pointed to the fact that he wasn’t on quite so long a leash as he sometimes suggested.

Nevertheless, Simmons retained an ardent, no-bullshit willingness to defy the network’s obeisance to the business of sports and entertainment when required. His unvarnished perspective seeped into the ESPN properties he worked with most closely, such that Grantland and “30 for 30” cut against the grain of dominant studio franchise films and sterile sports commentary alike.

With a deep bench of writers at Grantland and “30 for 30” continuing to provide a consistently entertaining side door into the world of sports, including the excellent March episode “I Hate Christian Laettner,” directed by Rory Karpf, Simmons’ legacy seems safe, at least for now. But the fact that ESPN protected its relationship with the NFL by suspending Simmons after the Goodell incident does not bode well for the network’s long-term commitment to reporting, analysis, and criticism that resist conventional wisdom or refuse to toe the party line.

As Re/code reports, David Cho, publisher of Grantland since Simmons founded the website in 2011, is also leaving ESPN. This may simply be an expression of personal loyalty, but it’s also evidence that the network is willing to tug the reins on the iconoclastic personalities that have defined Grantland’s voice since its inception.

Indeed, Simmons’ role in turning ESPN’s eye toward the prestige of respected writers and award-winning original programming, though it may have stemmed from a distinctive editorial vision, was ultimately possible because he brought his audience with him. Simmons leveraged the immense popularity he’d achieved since coming to ESPN from AOL in 2001 to break the mold of highlight reels and talking heads, and he could reasonably assure the network that its risks were minimal because his fans were sure to follow.

The worry now is that Simmons loyalists will follow him out the door, leaving his ESPN creations more vulnerable to corporate interference. In the era of blockbuster broadcast rights agreements–in which advertisers searching for reliably large, demographically desirable audiences need look no further than live sports– Grantland and “30 for 30” need ESPN far more than it needs them. After six years of the documentary series and four years of the website, it may be that Simmons’ brand of sports/pop culture mash-up will go on without him unbowed, and because both properties make ESPN more interesting, I sincerely hope they do. But in the world of media as in life, there are no guarantees.

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