The setting was quintessential ESPN when it came to doing business: a glitzy midtown Manhattan theater featuring special guests like Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis and singer Jordin Sparks helping sell the network's 2015-16 plans to the advertising community. All of ESPN's top brass was there, and after the annual upfront presentation ended, as people spilled out of the Minskoff Theatre on West 45th St., ESPN president John Skipper spoke to a dozen reporters and eight or so ESPN p.r. people primarily about Bill Simmons. The date was May 12, 2015, four days after Skipper had announced that ESPN would not re-sign Simmons, the editor-in-chief of Grantland and an executive producer of the 30 for 30 franchise. That preemptive public strike by ESPN caused an uproar in social media and launched a series of stories that reached as far as Europe.
After Skipper addressed some questions about Simmons and other issues, I asked him about Grantland.
“We are committed to Grantland,” Skipper said then. “We are going to continue to do it and we are going to continue to do it at the same level both financially and staff-wise. Bill did a great job building that site, and I think he and I will be on the same page in suggesting we want to build on that legacy.”
When I asked specifically if he had a long-term commitment to Grantland, Skipper said yes.
On Friday afternoon that commitment ended. ESPN released a statement saying that it had suspended publication of Grantland, effective immediately.
“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,” an ESPN statement read. “Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun. We are grateful to those who made it so. Bill Simmons was passionately committed to the site and proved to be an outstanding editor with a real eye for talent. Thanks to all the other writers, editors and staff who worked very hard to create content with an identifiable sensibility and consistent intelligence and quality. We also extend our thanks to Chris Connelly, who stepped in to help us maintain the site these past five months, as he returns to his prior role.
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.”
For those who appreciate quality writing and commentary—the site published everything from Molly Lambert’s brilliant Mad Men reviews to Zach Lowe’s sharp NBA analysis—the news hit hard. Grantland immediately rose to the top of Twitter’s trending topics.
In a stunning lack of decency, some Grantland contributors found out the news on Twitter. “Well that's the first time I've ever found out I was laid off via Twitter,” tweeted Michael Baumann, who covered baseball for the site.
ESPN said it will honor the contracts of all of Grantland's writers. “The intent is to use the sportswriters on other ESPN platforms,” a spokesman said.
Over the past months, Grantland writers, no doubt in fear of this day, have been searching for other jobs, including at Sports Illustrated. Four key members of Grantland’s staff—Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin and Chris Ryan—departed in the past month to work for Simmons at an unnamed project. Simmons recently launched an independent podcast and will have a new show on HBO in 2016.
The site also lost several key staff members recently, including Rembert Browne, who took a job at New York magazine, and Wesley Morris, who won a Pulitzer Prize at the Boston Globe before coming to Grantland and now is a critic-at-large for the New York Times. He had previous stayed at Grantland despite many offers—including from the Times—because of loyalty to Simmons and the site. Most critically, the site lost founding editorial director Dan Fierman. He had worked for the site since its inception in 2011 and was a close confidant of Simmons and one of Grantland's key behind-the-scenes executives. He is now vice president and editorial director of MTV News.
As for the other ESPN affinity sites, Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of fivethirtyeight.com, said his site would not be affected by Grantland’s news. “We've been growing our audience & maturing,” Silver tweeted. “Real proud of everyone. More hard work ahead.” The Undefeated, ESPN’s yet-to-launch site on race and sports, recently hired Kevin Merida, the managing editor at the Washington Post, as its editor-in-chief. The site appears safe for now.
Grantland was founded in 2011 as an online literary project mixing sports and pop culture with the work of the popular Simmons as its main draw. The site initially mixed well-known authors such as Chuck Klosterman and Malcolm Gladwell (who never really wrote much) and young writers. At the time, Simmons said his goal was to capture the spirit and creativity of 30 for 30 and translate it to a website.
“We’re going to take chances, come up with a few premises and ideas that you haven’t seen before, and be consistently entertaining day after day,” Simmons said upon launch. “You will never know what to expect when you come to the site—in a good way. That’s our ultimate goal.”
They succeeded. The site wasn’t perfect but it was refreshing, creative and honest, and it allowed writers to be writers. It supported unique voices, and it helped define the value of a podcasting network at a sports and culture site. (Anyone with a podcast at SI owes a debt of gratitude to Grantland for pushing that platform.) And now, after four years, it’s gone.
Reached on Friday afternoon, Simmons declined comment to SI. But he did send a message to his former bosses on Twitter: “I loved everyone I worked with at G[rantland] and loved what we built. Watching good/kind/talented people get treated so callously = simply appalling.“
Given ESPN’s place in the media universe, you wonder if another major entity will ever take a similar shot. For those who love words and sports content beyond the bloviators of the day, Friday was a horrible day.