When the New York Times broke the story Friday that America’s most popular sports media personality, Bill Simmons, had effectively hit the free-agent market, speculation about where he might land began immediately.
Could Simmons go to a traditional media power like Fox or NBC? A cash-rich upstart like Vox or Vice? Or would he perhaps strike out on his own, drawing on the easy venture capital money that is, once again, coursing through the media business?
Simmons is technically under contract to ESPN until September, so speculation about his next landing spot could drag on through the entire summer. But while it does, it’s worth asking what will become of Grantland, the website Simmons launched with ESPN money back in 2011. Named after the sportswriter Grantland Rice, the site serves as a kind of long-form counterweight to modern quick-hit sports media, and it has recently begun to find some modest footing. It attracted 6 million unique U.S. visitors in March, according to comScore data, a 49 percent increase from the same period last year.
Those are fine numbers, but they are probably not enough to support 26 full-time staff writers, more than a dozen editors, a video and podcast production crew and offices in downtown Los Angeles. It would be one thing if Grantland were staffed with starving 20-somethings, but its masthead includes Pulitzer Prize winners, Harvard professors, Esquire columnists and senior authors plucked from top-shelf publications like Spin and Sports Illustrated.
Grantland’s finances have never been made public, and the last time anyone asked, publisher David Cho said the site’s profitability changed depending on the accounting. ESPN regarded Grantland as a sandbox for Simmons rather than a moneymaking operation, and it may not even be staffed in a way that would enable it to increase revenue quickly, something that was on Simmons’s mind even before he got the ax last week.
“Grantland’s at a crucial point now where we’re doing the site that we have now really, really well,” Simmons told Re/code’s Peter Kafka at SXSW in March. “So now the question is, what does that mean to ESPN? I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s a me decision -- it’s what does ESPN want from this site?
“At some point we’ve got to either start growing, or we have to figure out what’s going to happen,” Simmons said.
In that same Re/code interview, Simmons did little to hide his displeasure with how his soon-to-be-former employer staffed Grantland and promoted its product, and that dissatisfaction may have spread through the workforce; in the past year, both had to deal with a number of defections. “The Men in Blazers,” a well-known soccer podcast started by two ESPN contributors, was poached by the NBC Sports Network, while “The Moment,” a show hosted by former lawyer and screenwriter Brian Koppelman, pulled up stakes and headed to the Panoply Network, a podcast network run by the Slate Group. And most of the top-shelf talent on Grantland's masthead, including people like basketball savant Zach Lowe and premium film critic Wesley Morris, could be snapped up in a second by rival publishers.
ESPN will hold on to both Grantland and its network of podcasts -- improbably, it is reportedly exploring possible replacement hosts for “The B.S. Report,” Simmons’ popular podcast -- and ESPN's president, John Skipper, affirmed his commitment to the site in a statement released Friday. "ESPN remains committed to Grantland," the statement read. "We have a strong team in place.”
But the future of that commitment -- and that team -- could be a lot leaner than its current form. Within hours of Simmons’ fate becoming public, Grantland editor David Cho told Re/code he was leaving too.