The loss of Grantland is profound. In an age of terrible content-aggregating websites like Bleacher Report, Huffington Post, Bustle, and others, Grantland stood out for it’s commitment to well-written content without gimmicks like listicles, slideshows, and click-bait. Bill Simmons (ESPN-supported) hired amazing writing talent. A new dawn in writing seemed to emerge, when a vanity website was able to lure a Pulitzer prize winner (Wesley Morris), but to me the bigger story was the emergence of relatively obscure writers like Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell.
Zach and Bill quickly became among the best of the NBA and NFL writers in the entire country. They possessed a talent for bridging the divide between the observation crowd and those committed to analytics, bringing a complete look at their sports that nobody was pulling off.
So what was the issue with Grantland, beyond the loss of their founder, leader, and tour de force? The unfortunate answer is that the site simply wasn’t profitable. ESPN seemed willing to let it’s vanity site continue while supporting one of it’s most expensive personalities, but without Bill Simmons at the helm, that support immediately waned.
That’s what makes the demise of Grantland particularly sad. Those gimmicks, listicles, slideshows, and click-bait are making a lot of websites profitable. It could be that a site of the size and scope of Grantland was simply not feasible given today’s internet economics. And it could follow that the market for writers could be continuing to contract, leaving the low-paid bloggers and content farms to provide the bulk of the writing output.
This, my friends, is sad and tragic. The loss of Grantland is a loss for all of us.
Bill’s rise from writing a blog (when such a term was yet to exist) to the most influential sportswriter in the country was astonishing. I came to know Bill Simmons’ writing when his articles were appearing on ESPN’s Page 2 alongside industry hall-of-famers like Ralph Wiley and David Halberstam. Yet, it was the Sports Guy hailing from Boston that constantly caught my attention and were the articles I couldn’t wait to read. Here was a guy writing in the same way my friends and I looked at sports, as a passionate outsider. I didn’t mind the constant Beverly Hills 90210 and Karate Kid references either. His writing spoke to me, made me laugh several times an article, and on the days he published were the first thing I looked for on the ESPN website. Yes, back then, Bill published on schedule.
It wasn’t long before Bill was the featured writer on the ESPN homepage, eventually sharing that real estate with longtime SI writer Rick Reilly. Except, Reilly was clearly mailing in his articles, while Bill was constantly pumping out fantastic content.
To me, his greatest articles were his NBA Trade Value columns, his amazing and often hilarious NBA Draft Diaries, and of course, the mailbags ending with, “Yep, those are my readers.”
His writing approach was always accessible to regular fans. My favorite was his competition with his wife one year betting NFL games against the spread. She won, picking random teams for random reasons, and it was something we could all relate to.
Bill SImmons was a driving force behind the remarkably well-produced 30 for 30 series, which started as a way to celebrate the Worldwide Leader’s anniversary and became an outlet for serious but interesting looks at the phenomenon of sports and it’s affect on our culture.
I remember the Sports Guy cartoon, and how bad they were. Still they made me laugh.
Who can forget Bill’s Celtics Chants Twitter account that ended up with an entire arena in Boston chanting “New York Knicks” every time Lebron went to the free throw line in the playoffs? Bill’s influence was absolute.
I never found podcasts to be particularly interesting until Bill Simmons and ESPN launched the B.S. Report. It was nothing more than an outlet for Bill to talk to his friends (Jack-O, House, Cousin Sal, list goes on) but Simmons had the gift. The podcast was funny, interesting, and like a great television show, there was a lot of character development. It eventually became the biggest podcast on the internet.
Bill Simmons found his Mount Everest when he eventually launched Grantland, a website devoted to the long-form and his interests in sports and pop culture. The site launch was highly anticipated and the work was immediately good. In a world with no shortage of truly awful sportswriting, Grantland offered something different. Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell in particular were indispensable, writing about the NBA and NFL with analysis that couldn’t be matched elsewhere. Bill Simmons not only was part of something great, he built it and brought in other greats to work with him.
I believe that Bill’s foray into television was the beginning of the end. Like Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann before him, he was now the star of the network and his decision-making bordered on arrogant. Who can forget the WEEI rant that got him suspended from social media?
How about the clear disagreement he had with Magic Johnson that he immediately denied? Bill’s rebuttal was that Magic was coming in to do a B.S. Report podcast that next day. By the way, that podcast never aired. Or his extremely public feud with Doc Rivers on his Celtics departure, going so far as to condescendingly call him Glenn on Twitter? It became clear to me that Bill lost his way when he completely mangled the publication and response to Caleb Hannan’s piece on Dr. V’s Magical Putter. An editor dedicated to their craft doesn’t allow that piece to air.
Bill Simmons’ name-dropping got increasingly tired. The worst was a column where he casually mentioned texting with Kobe Bryant, the Satan to his Boston-loving heart. He also began using his most humorous lines on Twitter, then completely recycled the same lines in his articles.
Bill also stopped writing. He published occasional mailbag columns, many of them rushed and lacking thought. His hallmark as a personality seemed to leave the station. The podcasts continued to be excellent, but I can’t tell you the last time I read and truly appreciated a column. And contrary to what some people say, Bill Simmons can write. His column on losing his beloved dog Daisy (The Dooz) was magical, and spoke to the soul of every pet owner that lost their best friend. But those wonderful columns have appeared to be history.
His last suspension for calling Roger Goodell a liar (I listened to the podcast before it was pulled) seemed over-the-top even for ESPN. What Bill said was fairly uncontroversial, and believed by the vast majority of the sports world, but ESPN has built a huge problem and conflict of interest. ESPN wants to be a huge broadcast partner to the entire sporting world, but also keep it’s journalistic talent intact. When those worlds collide, the result is rarely pretty. Bill responded by loading up his Instagram with various images of him relaxing and playing golf, sending a very insubordinate message.
I wonder how this next week will shape out and what his response will be. Bill has little to worry about beyond disappointment and embarrassment that he is being shipped out from the Worldwide Leader. He is very wealthy, and in his next destination (or destinations), he will be paid handsomely. The question now is where does he want to take his career now that the Bill Simmons ESPN divorce is upon us.
He could go back to dedicating himself to writing, and there will be an active audience for it. Bill will find another podcast network to join. Those will keep him popular, even if neither medium is likely to come close to approaching his current salary figure. There are some television opportunities, particularly on TNT, so it’s possible he could be mixing it up with Ernie, Steve, and Charles soon. Fox Sports is a possibility, in that they are a deep-pocketed entity looking to buy market share, but does Bill want to start from the bottom? For all of Katie Nolan’s immense talent, which Bill recognized when she was on his podcast, she has yet to really build a significant national audience.
What is the next chapter in this Bill Simmons ESPN story?
Most unlikely: Bill stays quiet and out of trouble. Privately, he finally speaks to John Skipper and they truly clear the air. Away from the media, some negotiation begins in earnest and before the end of September, ESPN issues a press release that Bill Simmons is coming back after all.
Not very likely: Bill launches a new Grantland, either with venture capital money or through another sports media partner.
Possibly: Bill starts freelancing for Deadspin, the filter is off, and he can finally pen his “Is Roger Goodell the Anti-Christ?” article. Please let this be true.
Likely: Bill leaves ESPN and Grantland immediately. Grantland continues without the same spark and enthusiasm. The site’s freelance contributers write less, and a sizable portion of the staff leave for greener pastures when their contracts end. The site is there, but without the same influence. Bill splits his work between a media property with NBA access (Turner) and another influential sports website (SI, Yahoo! Sports). He has less ability to dream big and work on new and innovative projects like he did at ESPN. Several years down the line, like Keith Olbermann and Jason Whitlock before him, he returns to the Worldwide Leader.