The first text came in that said “RIP Kobe.” It was to a basketball-oriented texting group, and I simply assumed he was referring to Lebron passing him in career points the night before.
Yesterday, I lost one of my favorite websites, Deadspin.com. As my good friend Dave Harrell pointed out, it was also the 4-year anniversary of the loss of another beloved site, Grantland.
As has been pointed out many other times online, this isn’t the true death of Deadspin, which will likely exist as a zombie website in order to catch SEO search views and serve tons of ads to those who click on the links.
I have been reading the website since Will Leitch was the Founder and Editor-In-Chief. It served plenty of sports, but also a quirky and bizarre set of side pursuits that had little to do with sports. Where else can you get upset by some incredibly bad takes on cereal? Or follow the monthly drama of Oddibe McDowell’s water bill? I miss Bear Friday. Just a small selection of a lot of content that I truly enjoyed as a tangent from sports. You don’t have to Stick To Sports.
The writing was always fantastic. The writers were always allowed to expand on the sports they were most passionate about. I learned more about Premier League and La Liga because of the expansive write-ups by people like Greg Howard and Billy Haisley, even though its a sports where I only have minor interest. I loved reading it.
Nobody wrote about Donald Trump better than David Roth, and nobody made better Stephen A. Twitter jokes. I could go on about so many more writers, and of course, how could the website exist without Drew Magary? I suppose we will find out.
The writing has been on the wall, as they say, for Deadspin’s demise. After Gawker Media was litigated out of existence, the site lived on (with it’s sister sites) with Univision. When Great Hill Partners bought Gizmodo Media, Deadspin’s days were numbered. It’s doubtful that the new owners really did their homework. Anybody who actually read Deadspin knew that they were committed to journalism and not taking things too seriously. The “Stick To Sports” confrontation only had one way to go. Even a newly created union did little to stop the site’s demise.
I suspect this is what Great Hill Partners wanted in the first place. Free of expensive, experienced, writers, they can now explore the SEO underbelly that actually powers the internet. They already inserted awful Sponsored Taboola links, which are nothing but garbage. The controversy over auto-play video just to try to hit Farmer’s Insurance viewership goals made things obvious. User experience meant nothing.
Crap Content is The Present, and Future
This is the reality of writing on the internet. There are easy ways to boost traffic. Content farms are supposed to be downgraded on Google search, but it’s obviously not working. Current G/O Media boss Jim Spanfeller once bragged about posting 5,000 Forbes.com articles a day. That isn’t writing or journalism, that is a virus. This is, if you will, the Bleacher Report method of content.
This method also uses unpaid or low-paid writers, opening up a host of issues. I don’t know G/O Media and GMG Union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, but the fact that Deadspin was still using freelancers makes me believe it didn’t protect its workers as well as it should have. Sites like Fansided and SB Nation (not coincidentally investigated by Deadspin’s own Laura Wagner) have created hundreds of “team sites” selling the dream to unpaid people that they too can become a professional writer (they won’t). My Google News is filled with hundreds of these team sites I have had to manually remove from search results.
Then, there is the lousy content itself. Evidence of bad content being uploaded with little to no oversight are too easy to find on the internet for me to link to. Turns out, having a good Editor helps. Fill every space with obnoxious ads, spammy Sponsored Links, and cross-site cookies means you can do the illusive: make money on the internet.
But here’s the thing. Deadspin was a profitable franchise! Some of the best writers, many young but already skilled, curated by good editing, and you had a website worth reading several times a day. There was a dedicated commentariat that even the writers themselves got to know. Off-the-wall content was actually one of the reasons to go back to the site when you had a break or a lunch hour. Great Hill Partners needed to do nothing, literally nothing, to keep the site working and profitable. That they only knew to cut costs and strip all parts from G/O Media shows that they had no business buying the company in the first place. Now that they fired Barry Petchesky and watched the entire staff resign one-by-one, what do they have? Who wants to buy G/O Media now that its been stripped down to bare parts?
That’s where Deadspin’s future as a zombie lies. Somebody will buy it, and they will either add a lot of lousy, unpaid, content, or they will just use the existing SEO to generate advertising money. Deadspin will live, but it won’t exactly be alive either. In that respect, I have a little more respect for ESPN holding Grantland.com in stasis, the articles allowed to rest in peace.
Deadspin was one of the first websites I loved. At various times, I also loved Baseball Prospectus, Grantland, and a few others. Arstechnica is still going strong, and I do hope its owners allow the site to continue unimpeded. There isn’t much good journalism left.
The future of writing is bleak. The future of reading is bleaker. Just go to cnn.com and read up. How many articles are news and how many are just opinion? Our own instincts are powering this behavior. Purple journalism isn’t new, so anybody worried about Clickbait should read up on newspaper publishing. They are only serving us what we engage with, and it isn’t straight-up, no compromise, journalism. Great Hill Partners knows that, and that is why Deadspin had to die yesterday.
RIP: The Death of Grantland
Last week, ESPN announced that publishing of Grantland.com would be suspended immediately. Since the unceremonious exit of Bill Simmons from ESPN’s platforms, including the Grantland site he founded, the demise of the website seemed inevitable.
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.
The Inevitable Bill Simmons ESPN Divorce
The divorce between ESPN and Bill Simmons seemed inevitable, and yet, John Skipper’s announcement that ESPN would not renew Simmons’ contract was stunning.
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.