In the five short months since ESPN president John Skipper bounced Grantland founder and boss Bill Simmons out of ESPN, many on the Grantland staff have experienced five long months of chaos and aftershock. Last week saw the exodus of five key Grantland editorial figures, and that followed the departure in September of Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Wesley Morris, who just last year, turned down a job offer from The New York Times to continue working at Simmons’s side. Morris is now critic at large at The New York Times.
If that wasn’t enough, multiple sources have confirmed that one of the staffers who left, deputy editor Sean Fennessey, was offered Simmons’s old job as Grantland’s editor in chief, the post currently held by Chris Connelly. Fennessey turned ESPN down, deciding instead to join Simmons in a new digital venture, along with other ex-Grantlanders Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin, and Chris Ryan. Dan Fierman also left to serve as vice president and editorial director of MTV News.
For an ESPN management team that has been struggling to find the right moves in the aftermath of the Simmons explosion, Fennessy’s “thanks but no thanks” has to be a frustrating, and arguably humiliating, rejection. Despite declarations of support from Bristol Central, it leaves Grantland facing more uncertainty than ever.
Discussions on background with Grantland staffers past and present (ESPN executives associated with Grantland declined to talk on the record or on background for this column) reveal that the site is beset by a climate of fear, a cycle of mistrust, and a belief amongst several that staff are “treated like children.” An overall lack of communication with management has been beyond frustrating for the staff. Many heard about Connelly’s appointment on their Twitter feeds—precisely where Simmons had learned of his dismissal.
Since its 2011 founding, Grantland has served as a channel for Simmons to expand the Grantland staff’s distinctive point of view to journalism and criticism, a no-fear zone within the ESPN empire. That privileged position can safely be considered history. There is fear now, not only for the survival of the staff—with still more departures rumored imminent—but also for the survival of Grantland itself, unthinkable as that may have seemed even a year ago. Staff-wide angst continues to grow despite a Herculean effort by ESPN to dispense metrics suggesting traffic on the site is stronger than ever, implicitly arguing that Simmons’s departure had little effect on the almighty numbers.
But interpreting metrics for Grantland is a total quagmire, because there are simply too many ways of slanting the stats—e.g., sourcing, ignoring how often stories were featured on the ESPN.com home page, visibility on the mobile app, etc. ESPN management and staunch Simmons defenders could both take turns in front of a jury and make compelling cases that things are either better or worse than before Simmons’s departure.
The arguments over metrics are reminiscent of the restive squabbling earlier this summer about whether or not the site was profitable. On several occasions, Skipper reassured Grantland personnel concerned about profitability, telling them not to worry about dollars and that what ESPN needed was “soul,” along with “other things that matter,” apart from scores and statistics. (Speaking onstage at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit last week, Simmons conceded that Grantland was not profitable: “It was probably like right around even.”)
Over the last two years, ESPN management had heard from Simmons many times that he didn’t think they were selling Grantland aggressively enough. ESPN sources place annual ad revenue for Grantland at about $6 million a year, including the Web site and a Simmons podcast, but since his departure from ESPN, Simmons has rolled out his own (and his owned) podcast, which, according to an industry expert, is probably worth north of $5 million in yearly revenue alone. Thus Simmons is now making for himself roughly the same as Grantland’s entire annual ad-sales revenue.
The key and practical predicament now is whether ESPN should continue with the site at all. Grantland was never the kind of enterprise ESPN would have attempted were it not for the fact that Simmons—for a while, ESPN’s highest-paid employee—wanted it. And in the beginning of the site, ESPN executives John Skipper, John Walsh, and Rob King paid a great deal of attention to it, and their star.
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