Bill Simmons Calls ESPN Decision to Terminate Grantland Site ‘Appalling’

ESPN is pulling the plug on Grantland, the cultural news and commentary site that has drawn much praise for its long-form stories and video productions.

“After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise,” ESPN said in a statement.

Word of the suspension in operations comes five months after Grantland founder and editor Bill Simmons left ESPN amid a strained relationship with top brass. Simmons, who has since set up shop at HBO, blasted ESPN for “callously” shuttering the website on Twitter.

“I loved everyone I worked with at G and loved what we built,” he wrote. “Watching good, kind, talented people get treated so callously (is) simply appalling.”

Grantland’s demise also comes as ESPN is undergoing layoffs of about 300 staffers in an effort to reorganize its operations in light of changes in the business landscape for cable networks, even those as formidable as ESPN.

Chris Connolly, a contributor to Grantland and other ESPN and ABC News platforms, took over the helm of the site following Simmons departure. ESPN said he would remain with the company in his previous roles. An ESPN source said the roughly 40 people affected by Grantland’s demise will have existing contracts honored. Sports-focused writers will be moved to other platforms in the ESPN universe.

“Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun. We are grateful to those who made it so. Bill Simmons was passionately committed to the site and proved to be an outstanding editor with a real eye for talent,” ESPN said. “Thanks to all the other writers, editors and staff who worked very hard to create content with an identifiable sensibility and consistent intelligence and quality.”

A longtime ESPN columnist, Simmons launched Grantland in 2011, naming the site after famed sportswriter Grantland Rice. The initial focus on the intersection of sports and culture quickly expanded to cover a wide range of pop culture and social issues and a growing focus on media and entertainment.

ESPN vowed that Grantland’s “legacy of smart long-form sports story-telling and innovative short form video content will continue, finding a home on many of our other ESPN platforms.”

Simmons had a public clash last year with ESPN brass after he was vocal in his criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of domestic violence concerns and other scandals involving the league.

The shuttering of Grantland spurred speculation that ESPN may be reconsidering some of its other dedicated editorial websites including Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news site and The Undefeated, a deep-dive looks at sports figures and other topics. Sources at ESPN say that both of those operations are fully backed by ESPN brass, especially as FiveThirtyEight is coming in to what an exec called “its Super Bowl season” with the 2016 presidential campaign shifting into high gear. And ESPN just this mont recruited former Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida to run Undefeated.

With Grantland, from ESPN’s perspective, the site’s increasing emphasis on non-sports topics was out of synch with the company’s effort to focus its efforts on its core sports brands. A source also noted that ESPN research determined the most of Grantland’s audience overlapped with regular ESPN.com readers, which means that the end of Grantland is not expected to put a dent in ESPN’s online audience.

However, insiders acknowledge that dropping Grantland is a blow to the image ESPN had once sought to cultivate as a rival to Sports Illustrated and others in the area of prestige sportswriting and commentary.

ESPN chief John Skipper declined a request for comment.

 

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