Without Its Respected Founder, What Does the Future Hold for ESPN’s Grantland?

Writers jump ship, but traffic remains strong

Grantland has been a popular media punching bag ever since ESPN decided to end its 14-year relationship with Bill Simmons in May. With several other recent high-profile departures, the narrative has been one of turmoil.

This week alone saw longtime staffers Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin and Chris Ryan leave to join Simmons—who's now with HBO—on a his new, unnamed venture.

 

Dan Fierman, Grantland's founding editorial director, left for MTV News, and frequent pop-culture writer Mark Harris is leaving the site as well. Earlier this year, Wesley Morris departed for The New York Times.

Simmons talked about the changes on his new podcast earlier this month and took ESPN to task for not supporting the site.

"We weren't even on their mobile page until, I think, January. We just had this tiny little hyperlink at the bottom of the ESPN.com mobile site," complained Simmons. "When they launched Scott Van Pelt's [midnight edition of SportsCenter] show—a ton of ads, a ton of resources—they blow it out and try to make it succeed."

The past few months have prompted many to wonder just what ESPN has planned for Grantland. Making matters worse, Chris Connelly, the site's interim editor in chief, has made no comments about the site's future. Adweek reached out to speak with Connelly, but ESPN declined.

 

And yet, in the face of staffers jumping ship as if Grantland were the Titanic, the 4-year-old website is coming off a strong summer.

According to comScore, the site had 6.87 million unique visitors in June, while July saw 7.2 million, making them two of Grantland's top three months ever. August was strong as well with 6.59 million uniques, the sixth-highest in the site's history. In May, when Simmons departed, the site had its best month ever with 7.23 million uniques, though some of that could be attributed to rubbernecking over Simmons' ouster. 

But much of Grantland's appeal was the distinctive voice Simmons brought to the site and his roster of talented writers. And with so many popular staffers heading for the door, it's still fair to wonder if a downward spiral isn't on the horizon.

"People mainly go to Grantland for the personality and flavor brought by Bill and his team that he hired," said Raymonde Brillantes-Green, vp and director of media at Digitas. "Similar to how people in the show Cheers went to the bar for the company and camaraderie of Sam and the regulars where everyone knew their name." Brillantes-Green described the situation as a case of personalities becoming bigger than the brand. "This becomes a threat in the eyes of many companies," he said.

Michael Lampert, svp of NY media and account management at 360i, argued that while Simmons was certainly a draw, there are many talented but undiscovered writers out there. "No entity relies on one person, and although Simmons was the entry for the site, quality sports reporting and opinion will also have a place," said Lampert.

Using the Cheers analogy, Brillantes-Green said simply swapping out talent won't work. "Think about how Cheers would have faired if they replaced Sam, Norm, Frasier and others with some new actors," he said.

Grantland's shaky status comes as ESPN is riding out choppy waters. The self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" has seen its subscriber base decrease and programming costs rise, leading to cost cutting. Its new TV deal with the NBA will cost ESPN three times its previous contract. Meanwhile, the Disney-owned network is seeing its first real cable competition from NBC and FOX.

Still, buyers we talked to see the possibility of greener pastures for Grantland. "If managed well, we likely won't see the site shut down," said Lampert.

"If the site continues to produce an upward trajectory of traffic numbers and renewed advertiser interest greater than the costs, I don't see why they would," said Brillantes-Green.