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, 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.)

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