Everyone is worried about Bill Simmons.
Simmons, possibly today’s most popular sports media persona, will undoubtedly find work. Whether he flips to another network – Vox’s SB Nation, Fox Sports and Turner Sports/TNT (because of the NBA licenses) have been rumored – or starts his own platform is inconsequential. (Deadspin wrote a guide on how to employ Simmons, then eliminated itself from contention with one post.) With brash opinions, a large following and cross-media accessibility, I’m sure Simmons won’t fade.
But the more interesting question is: What will ESPN do?
It has a hugely-popular web site featuring a team with a collective greatness that hasn’t been seen since Ocean’s 11. (Movie references in a sports column? Must involve Simmons.)
Two questions loom for ESPN execs: What will become of Grantland? And, what will become of the slew of stars?
To the former: ESPN president John Skipper says the site will be unaffected.
To the latter point, it seems illogical to think that Grantland will lose writers simply because of Simmons’ departure. After all, writers still get paid. There’s no concrete figure floating around on the web, but a senior writer for Deadspin (a Gawker site) said he earned roughly $72,000 annually. This Business Insider article estimates Grantland writers out-earn Gawker employees by double. Lucrative deals hard to come by elsewhere.
But the thing which made Grantland so attractive for writers: Simmons shielded his staff from generating posts designed purely for web traffic, or any reader stat-based pieces. They were allowed to spend time developing and searching for thoughtful pieces. Whomever ESPN hires to replace Simmons will presumably affect Grantland writers’ decision whether or not to stay, but the continued freedom of piece’s subject and timeline may end up being the decisive factor.
By “those writers” I don’t mean Simmons himself, who may be the worst writer Grantland employs. Jack Hamilton of Slate thinks Simmons’ departure is the best thing for his career, and I agree with his hypothesis. Simmons’ columns possibly suffer because of obligations to his podcasts and television appearances – both of which he does extremely well. But the columns… They are novellas. They are out-of-focus and incoherent and sometimes seem as if he’s insistent on dropping every name in a really-not-that-related anecdote. I’m being much nicer than this Deadpsin take-down:
By “those writers” I mean the genius of Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell and the like, who offer analysis of basketball and football, respectively, that I’ve never read before. I feel as if I’m getting smarter by reading them and they write as if they were explaining it to me, sitting next to me on my couch. Grantland put them on an accessible platform, bringing them into the spotlight from the bowels of a high school classroom and Pro Football Focus. Bryan Curtis, Rembert Browne and Brian Phillips write brilliant pieces I wouldn’t think of otherwise, like the media vs. Oklahoma City Thunder think piece by Curtis. I’m not a huge fan of the site’s culture section (I don’t watch Game of Thrones or Mad Men) but a movie-junkie friend of mine says Wesley Morris and Andy Greenwald are the best there is.
The reason why Grantland could afford to let its writers have a lengthy leash – and not produce oodles of lists and slideshows and GIFs – is because Grantland complements a traffic giant in ESPN. Let the content be good on Grantland and not dictated by readers statistics was the strategy. Places like Deadspin can be sometimes with some of its more ridiculous stories, like a guide to volunteering at your kid’s school. Or, some sites like Bleacher Report, is only lists and slideshows. A lot of sites need those to increase clicks to increase readership and inflate ad rates, but not Grantland up until now.
SimilarWeb says Grantland attracted 13 million visitors in April 2015, its best month yet, according to a farewell email Simmons sent to an employee. That’s also good for the 1500th most-trafficked site in the U.S. during that time.
In April, Deadspin attracted 17.7 million; SB Nation, 26 million; Bleacher Report, 48.8 million; ESPN itself, nearly 200 million. Deadspin and Bleacher Report had similar bounce rates (55 percent) and average page visit time (a little over three minutes) to Grantland. It will be interesting to read Grantland’s June 2015 statistics because that will be the first month without any content produced by Simmons. As the year progresses, we’ll be able to differentiate how much traffic Grantland generates opposed to how much Simmons brought in.
That’ll be an interesting study because the site sought to carve out a place for long-form journalism on the web. Critics say Grantland isn’t journalism. Blog posts regularly surpass 2,000 words and, the Columbia Journalism Review says, the site is the “Manhattan Project of navel-gazing.” The Big Lead, a USA Today product, studied Grantland’s content in 2013 and found that, between May 29 and June 4, only one post out of 125 included a scene with a person that didn’t include the writer.
While the question of who is more responsible, Simmons or the content, will be interesting to see for casual viewers, employees don’t have that luxury. They have to decide, soon, whether or not they’ll stay. This site protected “Writers from being search-engine-optimized into near-oblivion,” the Columbia Journalism Review wrote.
But if the site was really built for Simmons to keep him happy at ESPN, like he always said it was, then we know what will happen: It will be gone. If Simmons is gone, there’s no reason to keep him happy with it. When Simmons is gone, why should ESPN care about what he leaves behind? Other writers neither drive traffic like Simmons nor have his profile. If the best writers leave, then quality declines. If quality declines, then why would readers visit the site? If readers don’t visit, why would ESPN continue to fund an abandoned, unloved site?
Grantland could be the next The National. Simmons said Grantland was molded in the former daily sports newspaper’s image.
Good news for Simmons: Frank Deford, The National’s editor-in-chief, walked away from the paper’s rubble and continued his historic, legendary career.
Bad news for Grantland: The National died a quick death.
Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.