Have you ever finished an entire article on Grantland1? If so, you’re a fan with plenty of free time–the website is long-form sports journalism at its best. Now that the Bill Simmons’ spun sports and pop culture site is defunct, you’ll have even more spare time. Sadly, the talented writers at Grantland will publish on the site no more.
There are thousands of websites devoted to sports–major media publications like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, fan-run niche blogs and everything in between. In Grantland, ESPN attempted to capitalize on the popularity of primo columnist Bill Simmons by granting him the dream of creating and running his own website. A boutique island of the ESPN world that was independently operated yet safely tucked into the sports giant’s ownership umbrella. Simmons, a longtime ESPN writer, on-air talent and all-time pain in the ass, reveled in the opportunity to create something unique in the cookie cutter space of sports journalism. A staff was hired and Grantland launched, with much ado, in 2011. An overprotective, overbearing company grants an egotistical, brilliant media star more power–what could go wrong?
Grantland dared to be different mixing two of Bill Simmons’ great loves in life, sports and pop culture. The outspoken editor-in-chief ditched word count limits and put down the editorial pen in favor of long-form prose and get-out-of-the-way leadership. And he brought in award-winning talent to fill its pages with quality content. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Morris, MacArthur Award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, well-respected author Jonah Keri, New Yorker staff writer Malcom Gladwell, Zach Lowe and others signed on because of Simmons’ gravitational pull. He’s a writer so he ran the site in a way that assumed great journalism would lead to growth, recognition and ultimate victory. Growth and recognition, yes. Ultimate victory, alas not so much.
Bill Simmons, a brash personality that stuck out among his watered-down ESPN brethren, caused his shared of controversy while with the mothership. His 2014 rant against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell2 led to a suspension and the beginning of the end for the Simmons-ESPN relationship:
I just think not enough is being made out of the fact that they knew about the tape and they knew what was on it. Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying… If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such f——- bulls—. It really is. It’s such f——- bulls—…
The journalistic genius of Bill Simmons created the Grantland brand which grew from just another sports website into a property that included beautiful writing, an entertaining gaggle of podcasts, a healthy video network and a loyal following. And, though ESPN funded the endeavor, Grantland-focused promotion on ESPN television networks, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio was lacking. But team Grantland kept at it. Simmons hired great talent and challenged them to create a unique website that popped among a sea of competition. And it was working–website traffic peaked in April 20153–regardless of ESPN’s lackluster reasoning4 for shuttering the Grantland doors.
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.
If Bill Simmons’ media prowess made Grantland successful, his boldness and recklessness helped bring about its demise. ESPN terminated his contract this past May despite Simmons’ success as an ESPN.com columnist, Grantland editor-in-chief and driving force behind the award-winning documentary series, 30 for 30. He created a level of tension with suits in Bristol because he, unlike others at the company, confidently spoke his mind despite his employer’s business dealings. Let’s hope Simmons’ next great adventure5–an HBO talk-show host, an HBO Sports consultant and general HBO content producer–brings interesting, uncompromised information and entertainment to sports fans.
I don’t wholly blame Bill Simmons for the end of Grantland. I simply accept the part he played in its downfall. His is just one of many egos that shredded the pages of a uniquely whimsical and wordy sports website. The same greatness that built Grantland also helped tear it down.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com ~ @SecCitySports