Three days after the announcement that ESPN would be folding Grantland, the sports and culture site founded by former ESPN star Bill Simmons, there’s been plenty of mourning for the specific role of the site, which took an artisanal approach to its subject material. But I also think it’s worth considering Grantland’s demise in the context of the larger content ecosystem, and for all it says about the viability of highly personalized internet publications, the role of corporate consolidation in the media ecosystem, and the value of letting readers pay for things they say they love.
1. ESPN doesn’t feel the need to give its brand credibility: One of the prevailing reactions — at least on Twitter — on Friday was that ESPN had tossed the classiest part of its brand out the window. As “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” creator and sports superfan Michael Schur grumbled, “‘Hey, sorry about Grantland. But coming up next: The Fanduel/DraftKings Shouting Hour, where 8 doughy men shout about YOUR tweets!’ – ESPN.” But the unceremonious way ESPN shuttered Grantland suggested something rather different.
It’s worth noting that lots of Grantland’s writers had headed for the exits after Bill Simmons’s involuntary departure from ESPN in May. The brilliant movie critic Wesley Morris was appointed critic at large for the New York Times. EW veteran and culture historian Mark Harris announced his departure earlier this fall. Grantland’s editorial director, Dan Fierman, took over as head of editorial strategy and operations at MTV News. New York Magazine picked up Rembert Browne to be a writer at large. But there were plenty of wonderful writers left at Grantland, including the outstanding TV critic Andy Greenwald, who could have burnished ESPN’s reputation. So why didn’t ESPN try to keep Grantland alive longer, or at least treat its writers with more decency? According to some reports, they found out that their home publication was no more as ESPN was making the news public.
I think the answer is probably that ESPN doesn’t feel like it’s essential to burnish its brand with cultural elites and the readers who see themselves as particularly tasteful. There’s a difference between feeling like you need to keep someone like Bill Simmons, who has a large, broad-based audience, happy by letting him pursue a passion project and actually valuing the audience that’s drawn in by that passion project. The answer to why ESPN would so blithely anger Grantland readers is that ESPN doesn’t particularly feel it needs those readers.
2. Even in an age when lots of publications do everything, it can pay to focus: Earlier this year, Freddie deBoer wrote a blog post about the current economy of online publishing that’s stuck with me ever since. He pointed out that the need for sites to bring in very broad-based traffic had made many of them much less distinct than they claim to be. “I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject,” he suggested. “I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is. ”
ESPN hasn’t given up on projects that are devoted to something other than sports. FiveThirtyEight still stands to pull in a ton of election-related traffic as 2016 rolls around (though I have to admit, I’ll be curious what size staff ESPN is willing to sustain to keep Nate Silver happy in the long term). The Post’s Kevin Merida left us last week to run the Undefeated, the troubled site about race, sports and pop culture, though who knows what the overall mix of content will end up looking like.
But it takes an awful lot of staffing to build up truly comprehensive coverage beyond your core bailiwick. Grantland’s culture coverage was, by design, eccentric and determined by the vision and interests of its writers and founder, rather than comprehensive. ESPN’s core business, comprehensive sports coverage, is a pretty healthy-looking one right now. They’re not wrong to focus on it, especially given their position as part of a much larger corporate conglomerate that’s in the culture business. It might be smart for Disney, ESPN’s parent company, to run a smart, eccentric culture site that would give intellectual credibility to some of its offerings. But it doesn’t necessarily make sense for ESPN to do so.
3. Prestige, online-only publications should give audiences an opportunity to pay for them: There was a lot of talk about Grantland’s traffic after Simmons’ departure, but less frank conversation about whether that traffic was producing the sort of revenue that could support Grantland’s staff. And the assumption that ESPN would happily subsidize Grantland forever, treating the site’s expenses as a rounding error on its revenue, has clearly proved to be incorrect. As some of my readers pointed out on Friday, Grantland didn’t give fans an opportunity to pay for it, much less sequestering some of its content behind a paywall or create premium content for paying subscribers, as Slate does. If nothing else, offering a subscription option would have provided another metric to assess Grantland’s value and the intensity of its readers’ passions for the site.
As Simmons heads behind the paywall at HBO, I’ll be curious to see if there’s a way to measure whether he brings a subscriber bump to the premium cable service. Certainly, HBO’s rise over the past decade and a half has been an illustration that you can have ambitions with a direct revenue stream that might be harder to reach if your dreams are financed by someone else’s business.