Bill Simmons Banks Grantland Success on Sponsorships

ESPN columnist works against CPM pricing

Like David Ortiz turning on a 3-1 meatball to send it shrieking over the right field porch at Fenway Park, Bill Simmons is going long. In so doing, he hopes to save Internet content from the CPM.

A one-man content-generating apparatus—along with his regular podcasts, stewardship over ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series, and his logorrheic output (a typical column can run 6,000 words, not counting the footnotes)—Simmons has put his back into Grantland.com, the new ESPN-owned sports and pop culture site he's editing.

At launch—Grantland went live yesterday—the site’s sponsors include Unilever’s Klondike and the sandwich chain Subway. Simmons expects to have three more clients, including a luxury auto brand, signed by the end of the month.

“I went on a lot of sales meetings. I mean, we have awesome ad sales guys, but I think it’s different if you see the guy with the idea and he’s in there in the room with you and you can see the look in his eyes,” Simmons says. “It’s just a different scenario than if someone secondhand had pitched it. From here on out, I want everything I do to be this hands on.”

Speaking from Dallas, where he’s awaiting Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Simmons says he sees Grantland as a destination for the kind of thoughtful writing about sports and pop culture that just isn’t viable on a typical content site. To support this, Simmons has also told sponsors that the standard traffic guarantees will not apply on Grantland.

“It’s the quantity over quality trap. Everyone’s chasing page views and I’m not sure that’s always the way to go,” Simmons says. “We want to put up longer, more thought out stuff, because there’s definitely an audience for that kind of writing. So the key element in being able to proceed with this thing was to get the sponsors onboard with the idea that we wouldn’t throw up 60 items every day just to get traffic.”

Along with the freedom to allow stories to breathe a little, the sponsorship model has put Simmons in a position where he can accommodate his writers for their services. “I don’t like this model where people don’t get paid for the writing they do, because frankly, it’s disingenuous to think you can get away that,” he says. “If you want quality, you have to pay. And writers deserve to be able to make a living off their work.”

Sponsor dollars will also keep the site from slipping behind a pay wall. But Simmons won't have the final word on business decisions. He enjoys full editorial control over the property, but it’s still owned and operated by ESPN. (For example, the name “Grantland,” a paean to long-forgotten and wildly overrated sportswriter Grantland Rice, was dreamed up by ESPN brass. Simmons isn’t exactly doing back flips over the name, but claims the brand is a relatively minor consideration.)

According to ComScore, Simmons’ ESPN.com column last month drummed up three-quarters of a million unique visitors, a massive draw for a sportswriter. And his appeal isn’t limited to his wordy stew of Rocky III and Len Bias references. At last count, his Twitter account boasted 1.42 million followers.

His bosses––against whom Simmons has sometimes bridled––have been diligently promoting the site. The main story on ESPN.com Wednesday was effectively an ad for Grantland (the teaser photo they used was a shot of legendary Esquire art director George Lois swinging for the fences at the old Yankee Stadium) and the new venture will get some play on the cable network’s flagship broadcast, SportsCenter.

Unilever and Subway also will reap the benefits of the association with ESPN and Grantland, as each client is set to sponsor a thrice-weekly 90-second feature in the 1 a.m. SportsCenter. Other considerations include branding in Simmons-hosted video segments and customized SportsCenter lead-ins.

Subway was a bit of a layup, having served as a long-time sponsor of Simmons’ podcast. Meanwhile, the upside of the Unilever pact is that the company encompasses dozens of relevant brand categories ranging from food to bath soap.

Because Simmons can be unguarded in interviews, his remarks are often misconstrued as the whinging of a malcontent. An 11-year employee of ESPN, he’s soldiered through periods of dysfunction and what many former colleagues characterize as an “oppressive corporate environment.” (In the new oral history These Guys Have All the Fun, former SportsCenter anchor Jack Edwards recalled that “the prevailing idea [at ESPN] was that the network was much more important than individuals. It was a very, very negative place to work. Don’t believe the mascot promos. Life is not like that at SportsCenter.”)

Simmons has been formally censured by ESPN at least once. In November 2009, his corporate Twitter account was deactivated for two weeks after he referred to some nameless functionaries at Boston’s WEEI, then an ESPN Radio affiliate, as “deceitful scumbags.”

ESPN’s decision to encourage the Grantland project suggests that there’s no hard feelings. Not that you’d necessarily come away with that impression if you’d read Jonathan Mahler’s recent profile on Simmons in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. A quote at the tail end of the piece gives the impression that Simmons is less than satisfied with the new venture, but he insists the only thing he didn’t enjoy during the 18-month run-up to launch was the paper pushing that came with the job.

“A lot of the stuff I found myself doing were things I didn’t ever want to have to do,” Simmons says. “There was a lot of HR and salaries and stuff, and a lot of it just wasn’t fun.”

Despite all the activities that pull him away from his laptop, Simmons identifies himself as a writer above all else. And with a few months to go before he reaches his 42nd birthday, the writer is starting to be aware of his own professional sell-by date.

“I’ve really become aware of my mortality as a writer,” Simmons says. “Realistically, writers peak between age 35 and 45, so I only have a few years left where I’m at this level. If I can keep doing this when I’m 45, if I still have the spark, then yeah, I’ll keep at it. But we’ve all seen those guys who lose it and keep at it because they don’t know how to do anything else and … that’s not for me.”