“I still feel like I have five years left, where I can work at this pace. In five years I’m going to be 50, and I don’t know how hard I’m going to be able to work. I know how hard I work now. I don’t know if it’s going to be sustainable.
I think they take it for granted. Not just how hard I work, but how hard everybody works.” – Bill Simmons, re: his contract and position at ESPN, SXSW, March 2015.
It’s always been rumored that Simmons would pull up stakes and leave ESPN, but after 5 years of relative peace and quiet, his suspension for his (unsourced) allegations against Roger Goodell apparently was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He’s leaving ESPN. All of those columns. Grantland. 30 for 30. He leaves with nothing. A lot like the Cardinals with Albert Pujols, I am sure a competitive offer has been made, but ESPN probably not wrong in thinking the big ESPN machine can roll on without him. The fans, they will understand.
But what’s in it for Simmons? Why would he leave? [ed: Because he is a spoiled brat Masshole who pretends to be middle class and is never fucking happy with life]
First off, I think he’s got another book or two in him. He already likely has enough “eff you” money to tell ESPN to shove off. [Simmons was making $5 mil per year the last few years] Second, it appears although he’s had a ton of fun, he’s burned the candle down pretty far. [One weekly essay, gimme a break] It’s a testament to him that leaves a legacy of content and organization behind him. I really thought he’d be there forever. But working for the man when you're the man still likely rubs him the wrong way. Most likely, he has an alternative plan in place. I am very curious to see what that is.
I contacted a friend in the media about this. He was the same guy stunned by Nate Silver taking Disney's bag of money to leave the NY Times. Simmons has a ton of options. Simmons likely has the scratch and brand to pull in venture capital money and start up his own sports news and commentary site that does a little of everything that Grantland did but without Disney-ESPN rules. He could set up a simple site with a few regulars and take advantage of the low cost of production now to crank out a documentary or three for HBO. Fox also needs someone to boost the struggling Fox Sports One, so some type of deal with them could be in the works. Even if he has a book or two in him, he needs the non-stop advertising platform for his new books and the backing of a media entity to get access to players, coaches etc. to make his new venture, whatever it is, work.
But the real issue to me is the financial realities of Grantland didn’t live up to the cultural impact the site has had. [the Mad Men-Girls effect] Recall, Sports on Earth (SoE) had a murderer’s row of writers. The site lasted 18 months before MLB Advanced Media decimated the site. My guess? The costs weren’t worth the clicks they were getting. Culturally, among the chattering classes, Grantland is SWPL manna; great writers like Keri, Lindbergh and Lowe are the best in the business and combining narrative with analytics. Barnwell isn’t the best in his field, but for a skin eater he’s not completely horrible. It helps he writes on the NFL, which is why he probably leads the site in clicks (my guess).
But Simmons had to support that meat with a bunch of diversity hires, including writers like Serrano, Rembert, Katie Baker and others that are at best spare parts. Wesley Morris and Alex Pappademas are good on movies & culture [I preferred Greenwald]; netw3rk and Sean McIndoe are excellent staff writers on hoop and hockey, respectively. Hyden not bad on music. [Loser] Bryan Curtis is also a fine writer…but we still have to pay Dave Jacoby AND Jalen Rose. [Jalen never met an educated black he didn't hate and call an Uncle Tom] Don't forget about Charlie Pierce! [Masshole] In any case, that’s a lot of folks – and I am likely leaving all the support staff out! It’s likely quite expensive to run Grantland. And it wasn’t providing the revenue to support continued expansion, just like SoE. A hundred podcasts a year, generating millions in revenue is not going to cut it (or whatever they get from Subway and Stamps.com) to support the expenses of the site when it likely doesn’t deliver massive numbers of clicks. Without knowing the numbers, but understanding the gist, I’d argue Bill Simmons as indie film director, didn’t get the budget numbers he needed to make his next project. So he walked.
ESPN is in the business of buying programming and then selling ads around it. Grantland is a very small part of that model despite its outsized influence on the chattering classes who follow the sports scene. It’s even smaller considering the size of the multinational corporation that owns it (Disney). Grantland and 30 for 30 do not come close to bringing in the revenue the sports and other televised content does. Someday (like that Hispanic electoral title wave!), it might. [2028?] But for now it doesn’t. And ESPN gets all of Simmons’ architecture, just like the Cardinals got all of those titles, HRs and RBIs for Pujols before he left. They got the best of him, mostly at below market prices, just like ESPN got the best of Simmons. Time for Simmons to cash in.
An interesting lesson in all of this is that Simmons went for a SWPL manna, long form journalism site in an era of clickbait. Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias have created a junk food news site for White Millenials that is 99% clickbait, and it is doing well. It is not what they intended, nor is it what they sold the site as initially, but it is the end result of what the journalism market has pushed everyone into doing. Grantland probably could have succeeded from a financial standpoint had it tackled the sports and pop culture sector in a clickbait foundation that had a handful of great longform writers and specific sports reporters like Keri and Lowe. Grantland will probably fold up within a year as talent leaves, but if it is to survive, going clickbait tabloid with few fantastic deep dive writers will save it. Simmons cashed in years ago when he signed with ESPN. The money he makes now is just building dynastic wealth for his grandchildren.
Note: The best football writer is Mike Tanier at Bleacher Report. B/R publishes the number of clicks, or reads, on its articles. Tanier gets around 100k per piece.