In a Friday news dump that sent fans of brilliant, original sports journalism screaming and rending their garments, ESPN announced that, effective immediately, it was shuttering its distinctive sports and pop culture website, Grantland.
“After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise,” ESPN said in a statement. “Despite this change, the legacy of smart long-form sports story-telling and innovative short form video content will continue, finding a home on many of our other ESPN platforms.”
That’s all well and good. And it’s nice to hear that current contracts with the site’s writers will be honored.
But killing off Grantland is as clear of a signal as any that the company has decided once and for all that its corporate bread is best buttered with the Skip Baylesses and Stephen A. Smiths of the world, all screechy, pointless hysteria where every single issue in sports can be boiled down to thudding, binary non-debates.
What makes this announcement somewhat shocking is that as recently as two months ago ESPN was touting the number of unique visitors Grantland had received. After canning Bill Simmons, Grantland’s founder, John Skipper, ESPN’s president, told the New York Times that they were still committed to the site, saying it “long ago went from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own.”
But the network trimmed 300 employees, approximately 4 percent of its workforce from its roster, and has dumped a few high-profile high-salaried talking heads like Keith Olbermann and Colin Cowherd as part of an overall austerity plan that has been imposed by their parent company, Disney. Though Skipper has denied that the numbers are accurate, it’s been alleged that they have to lop off “$100 million from the network’s budget next year” and an additional “$250 million in 2017.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, ratings for SportsCenter are flagging and “since July 2011, ESPN’s reach into American homes has dropped 7.2 percent, from more than 100 million households—roughly the size of the total U.S. pay-TV market—to 92.9 million households, according to Nielsen data.”
As James Andrew Miller reported at Vanity Fair, many of Grantland’s key figures had already jumped ship to join Simmons at his next, yet-unnamed online venture. For those left behind, the site was “beset by a climate of fear, a cycle of mistrust, and a belief amongst several that staff are ‘treated like children.’ An overall lack of communication with management has been beyond frustrating for the staff. Many heard about Connelly’s appointment on their Twitter feeds—precisely where Simmons had learned of his dismissal.”
To wit, according to Deadspin, current editor in chief Chris Connelly made the announcement to the staff during a 1:50 p.m. conference call. But as was the case when Simmons himself was fired, at least one writer found out about the decision on Twitter, which of course is a dandy way to learn about this sort of thing.
Simmons chimed in too. He wasn’t exactly thrilled.
That Grantland never turned a profit isn’t in question. If it could have had ESPN paid any attention to it is a question. But what’s genuinely disconcerting is that ESPN decided that Curt Schilling’s angry uncle Facebook rants and Stephen A. Smith repeatedly carrying water for convicted domestic abusers Greg Hardy and Floyd Mayweather are far more deserving of space on their ledger.
If you want your sports journalism to speak truth to power, there’s still a modicum of hope, and most of it centers on the decades of work Bob Ley and Outside the Lines has put in. Grantland was, as Miller wrote, “a channel for Simmons to expand the Grantland staff’s distinctive point of view to journalism and criticism, a no-fear zone within the ESPN empire.”
This was a home for the beautiful weirdness of the NBA Shootaround, or Charles Pierce’s Breslin-style eviscerations of the NFL, a place that would devote the funds to send Brian Phillips to Japan for a devastatingly poetic journey into the unknown or let Molly Lambert take the time and space to explore Adult Film awards. Click open the homepage and you could ping from the stunning profundity that Andy Greenwald would bring to something as simple as a TV episode recap, to Louisa Thomas going deep on the NFL’s history with domestic violence, and on and on and on.
It’s a direct line to what made ESPN a cultural phenomenon in the first place: Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann nodding and winking, pun-tastically pointing out that the unbridled, bloody yawps of the sports world, and the immense passion that fans, players, coaches, and commentators involved is simultaneously both patently ludicrous and deeply human.
These writers are too good not to land somewhere, but Grantland is gone for good, subsumed by the needs of click-hungry advertisers, who tend to blanche at any take on the day’s events that might offend or would even tiptoe outside the box of standard-brand sports recap pabulum.
Not that I’m alleging that any sports commish leaned on ESPN and told it to shut this thing down, but this is what happens when you spend billions for the rights to broadcast the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and the World Cup. Those corporate partners have the tendency to see themselves as just that: partners.
And those corporate partners tend to raise a stink when you, say, back a documentary that might make them look not unlike the tobacco industry.
According to CNN, a senior ESPN source said, “We’re getting out of the pop culture business.” Yes, they are.
ESPN’s going to ride or die with “Stick to Sports,” a dismissive shorthand for anyone who might suggest a connection between the sports world and economics or politics or any social racial or gender issues, that it’s not just boxscores and harrumphing about Tom Brady’s “legacy.”
But in ESPN’s mind, that’s the winning formula.
The rest of us have lost.