Bill Simmons is leaving Grantland. Can the site survive without him?

May 11, 2015

Bill Simmons and ESPN launched Grantland on June 8, 2011. To say the journalistic-literary world hated it would be an overstatement, but not much of one.

Business Insider summed up the initial reviews as “underwhelmed.” In CJR, Sam Eifling wrote that Grantland “threatens to go down as the Manhattan Project of navel-gazing.” Nicholas Jackson declared in The Atlantic that “the new site is doomed.”

And yet, when The New York Times reported last week that ESPN will not renew Simmons’s contract when it ends in September, the Internet turned into a warm, if premature, wake for the site. Many of the kind words came from people who don’t have much use for Simmons as a writer. Jeb Lund, for example, savaged Simmons when Grantland launched. “I got to be wrong many times over,” he wrote last week in Rolling Stone, in “A Begrudging Appreciation” of Simmons and Grantland.

So what happened? Why didn’t Grantland live down to the early expectations?

The first answer is that Simmons proved himself to be an outstanding magazine editor. Like any great magazine, Grantland is a reflection of a particular sensibility, of its editors’ interests and worldview. Some people read Simmons’s “Sports Guy” columns and concluded that his interests were limited to reality TV, fantasy football, awful 1980s movies, porn, and going to Vegas with his buddies. It turned out that there was more to the man. Grantland has some Simmons’s bro-ishness to it, but it also has excellent longform reporting, sophisticated sports analysis, and some of the smartest pop-culture writing around.

“To me, it’s always felt a little more like Esquire than the rest of ESPN, almost like the 1960s Esquire,” said John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State. “It just felt a little bit more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill sports thing.”

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Simmons came into his Grantland experiment with no management experience, and he impressed in that regard, too. Grantland’s early struggles were largely the result of Simmons’s approach to hiring. He put together a murderer’s row of well-known writers: Chuck Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell, Dave Eggers, Chris Jones, Wright Thompson. It was as if Simmons were attempting to provide target practice for Deadspin. It was also completely unnecessary: the world did not need another place to read Malcolm Gladwell.

Those bylines faded away, and Simmons replaced them with an incredible collection of young talent. He hired the best basketball writer in the world, Zach Lowe, and one of the best football writers, Bill Barnwell. He hired Brian Phillips and sent him to Alaska for the Iditarod, the type of project that Sports Illustrated would have undertaken in its glory years.

Some of Grantland’s best writers were virtual unknowns before Simmons hired them. Molly Lambert, one of the original hires, was known mostly for her Tumblr and for sharing a first name with a couple of other young writers; now she is our bard of San Fernando Valley in the 21st century. Her recent feature on the Adult Video News Awards, “Porntopia,” took a collection of writerly clichés—porn stars, the Valley, the Vegas road trip—and turned them into something preposterously new and fresh.

Jason Concepcion was mildly famous when he was hired by Grantland, but not as Jason Concepcion—as @netw3rk, the handle for his phenomenal Twitter feed. Concepcion’s early Grantland pieces were under the @netw3rk byline. Today, he writes under his own name, covering soccer, Game of Thrones, movies, music, and the crucial intersection of Connect Four and professional basketball.

Rembert Browne was another young Grantland hire with no previous national profile. Simmons turned him loose in 2013 to visit the lower 48 states and write the joyous and enjoyable “Rembert Explains America.” This year, Browne went to Selma, Alabama, and came back with the best interview I’ve read with Barack Obama—or, rather, the best piece I’ve read about interviewing Barack Obama.

“I think [Simmons] had a vision of both big names and developing new talent,” says James Andrew Miller, author of Those Guys Have All the Fun, the definitive book on ESPN. “The new talent felt like they were in a place where they could trust management and trust the editorial team.”

The long leash for young writers didn’t always work out. That formula produced “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a piece on a transgender golf entrepreneur that Simmons apologized for.

“That was a big black eye. They will be the subject of classes for years because of that,” Affleck said. “To lionize them completely would be not fair.”

Miller recently looked at the Simmons-ESPN divorce for Vanity Fair. The relationship between Simmons and top ESPN management, particularly network president John Skipper, had been deteriorating for years, Miller reports. Simmons is bound to land elsewhere, but ESPN holds the rights to Grantland, and to Simmons’s other projects, including the 30 for 30 documentary series and his popular podcast The B.S. Report.

ESPN says it “remains committed” to Grantland. That statement leaves some room for interpretation. Miller reports that Simmons wanted more staff for Grantland but hadn’t been given the OK to hire anyone for the past year.

“After Bill Simmons leaves, we are going to get to see how much ESPN really values Grantland,” Miller said. “Was it something they did for Bill Simmons, or is it something they now want to continue?”

There will be two big clues as to the future of Grantland, Miller said. The first is who follows Simmons to his next project. (This is where Bill Simmons, noted authority on Tom Cruise movies, would post a clip of Jerry Maguire yelling “Who’s coming with me?”)

“It’s clear that Bill Simmons will be going someplace else, and he will obviously want to engineer something like Grantland,” Miller said. “It might even be on a grander scale. He hired a lot of those people—how many will he bring with him?”

The other clue will be the resources ESPN devotes to Grantland. ESPN isn’t likely to make deep cuts right away, but it might let the site slowly wither. There’s also no guarantee that, without Simmons, ESPN puts Grantland writers on television or gives Grantland prominent space on its home page.

Miller said he believes Grantland is profitable. Other reports have questioned that, based on the site’s relatively modest traffic.

It hardly matters. ESPN is a division of Disney, which made $7.5 billion in profit on $48.8 billion in revenue last year. It is literally immaterial to the company whether Grantland is in the red or black by a few million dollars.

“I think Grantland is an important totem, or a loss leader, for ESPN,” Affleck said. “I think ESPN is committed in some way to Grantland or something like it. They essentially have embraced the ambiguity of what they are, in terms of having stuff that’s geared toward journalism and stuff that’s geared toward entertainment. This is their prestige brand.”

In the early days of Grantland, Simmons was rumored to dislike the site’s name, which was chosen to honor the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice. A year ago, Simmons told Rolling Stone’s Rob Tannenbaum that he’s fine with the name; he’s just glad it’s not

In some ways, though, it is The site is inextricably tied to its founder, in the minds of its readers and presumably its writers. Simmons does not have an obvious successor. Miller, as informed an ESPN-watcher as there is, said he doesn’t know whether Grantland has a strong No. 2.

Affleck said he would expect the next editor to be a caretaker of sorts, someone to transition Grantland to the post-Simmons future. He said he’d want an established name from outside the site, though an internal hire could also fill that role.

“What you don’t want is somebody else who’s going to cause a lot of controversy for the company,” Affleck said. “If I’m ESPN, I want Grantland to produce good work and not be a firestorm for me.”

Under Simmons, it’s done one of those two things. If the next editor gives us the inverse—happy ESPN bosses and so-so work—we’re going to miss Bill Simmons.

Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.