It has now been nearly two weeks since ESPN shut down Grantland, the sports and pop-culture website started by Bill Simmons, and we are starting to get a clearer picture of why ESPN killed off a popular brand and what could have saved it.
ESPN president John Skipper, in his first interview since the closing of the site, with James Miller for Vanity Fair, discusses the reasons behind the decision and admits that there was one person who could have been promoted to keep Grantland afloat, a hire that was tied to maintaining the culture of Bill Simmons.
Skipper says they offered the editor-in-chief position to Grantland editor Sean Fennessey, a Simmons loyalist.
“We did make Sean Fennessey an offer to become editor-in-chief,” Skipper said. “You ask, ‘If Sean had said yes, then would we have still made the same decision about the site,’ and the answer to that has to be ‘no.’ We would have kept it going. There was no way we would have made that job offer to him if we weren’t going to keep going.”
Fennessey was one of four Grantlanders to leave the site near the end and join Simmons for his new project that has yet to be revealed.
Recently, Chris Connelly, who was serving as Grantland’s interim editor-in-chief, strongly suggested that Grantland was ultimately shut down because it wasn’t making any money.
However, Skipper denies it was a financial decision and says it was more about the effort that was needed to keep it going.
“In the weighing of a decision like this,” Skipper told Miller, “you look at the resources, the time, the energy necessary to do this well and balance that with the things you get from it. This was never a financial matter for us. The benefits were having a halo brand and being Bill Simmons related.”
This supports the notion that Grantland effectively died when Simmons left, it just didn’t know it yet.
Skipper also says that he decision was not influenced by Disney, ESPN’s parent company, suggesting that the death of Grantland is not tied to the recent budget cuts that resulted in more than 300 layoffs at ESPN in recent weeks.
In the case of Fennessey, Skipper and ESPN misplayed their hand and didn’t realise just how tight-knit that group was.
Skipper admits to underestimating the effect Simmons’s exit would have, conceding it affected Grantland personnel more than he or perhaps anyone else on his management team anticipated.
“We lacked a full understanding of the bonding nature between Bill and those guys,” Skipper says now. But along with management failing to appreciate fully the bond between Simmons and his staff, it also misunderstood the Grantland culture — enough to imagine that turning the site over to Chris Connelly, brought in as a temporary Simmons replacement, would sit well with the staff.
It is amazing to think that a company like ESPN would just get rid of a media brand with name recognition even if it wasn’t making any money yet. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t making money, it was a complicated mess without Simmons, and Skipper felt like it would have taken to too much energy and resources to keep it going.
And now it is gone.
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