So Bill Simmons, the logorrheic sporting everyman who is friends with Jalen Rose and wants you to know it, has been let go by ESPN after more than a decade at the network. From his early days as a Boston bartender with a popular local sports blog, Simmons built “He writes the way people talk!” into a cottage empire. The crown jewel in the Simmons kingdom is Grantland, the in-house startup that began as a vanity project for Simmons and grew into the Web’s foremost home for long-form sports journalism and tedious mailbag columns.
His departure raises two immediate questions: 1) Will I still be able to get my fix of stories about that time Simmons went to Vegas with House, Cousin Sal, Poochie, Ringo, Doorbell, the kid who played Timmy Lupus, and the rest of his fascinating friends? 2) Will Grantland survive his absence? The answer to the first question is an emphatic yes: Bill Simmons’ stories about his friends’ gambling problems will never die. The second answer is much less obvious. In announcing the move on Friday, ESPN President John Skipper said the site would be unaffected by the loss of Simmons. But while Simmons has built Grantland into a great site, there’s no guarantee that ESPN will continue to support it after his departure, whatever it is saying now. Just because a website does good work doesn’t mean it can justify the costs it takes to produce that good work. For the sake of journalism, though, I hope Grantland will stick around.
ESPN and Simmons launched Grantland in 2011 as a bid to revive and celebrate long-form sports writing in the era of the 24-second news cycle. The site was very much a reward bestowed on Simmons by the network for the large following he had won as a regular columnist elsewhere on ESPN’s website. ESPN, like every major media company, is a star system, and its executives want to keep their stars happy. If letting Simmons launch a long-form sports-writing website—regardless of whether there was audience demand or advertiser interest for such a venture—was what it was going to take to satisfy Simmons, then Grantland was what they would give him.
I was happy to see Grantland debut back in 2011. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who feared the site would be made in Simmons’ image, with everything written from the standpoint of the smartest dumb guy in the room, the one who literally can’t stop talking about that time he saw Elgin Baylor at Wendy’s, or how “Frosty” would be a really cool nickname for a relief pitcher, or how he read Ball Four once when he was in Cabo with his buddy Hobo Mike, and so on until you either want to punch him in the nose or kill yourself.
The worst-case scenario for Grantland was that it would be peopled with junior-varsity narcissists, Simmons imitators filing 7,000-word dissertations on how Beetle Bailey explains the NFL draft.
There’s a lot of length for its own sake on Grantland today. I guess that’s genetic. But of all the non-Slate websites I read on a daily basis, Grantland features the highest percentage of writers about whom I’d say, “I’ll read anything they write, just because they wrote it.” Simmons deserves the credit for this, for hiring good people and then letting them find their own voices rather than simply mimicking his. He gave the genius writers Bill Barnwell and Zach Lowe a platform, and now they produce what is consistently some of the best football and basketball analysis anywhere. Bryan Curtis and Brian Phillips—both former Slate writers—are consistently delightful. I’m not a huge fan of the site’s culture coverage, mostly because I do not watch Game of Thrones and do not care about comic books. But even that stuff is written with great verve and by insanely talented staffers like film critic Wesley Morris. There is always something or other worth reading on Grantland, and if there are a few too many lists, brackets, and mailbags for my tastes, I can always skip them.
As for Simmons, he has been the worst thing about Grantland for a very long time, and I mean that as a compliment. For at least the past year, Simmons has been an infrequent contributor to his own site, instead spending his time on his television work and podcasts. When he does write, it’s usually something that’s simultaneously perfunctory and exhaustive, which is a hell of a trick to pull off. But he has built the site into something that cannot only stand without him—as Skipper himself said in his unceremonious firing announcement—but has a chance to stand even taller in his absence.
The question is whether ESPN will let it do so or whether it’s planning to cut Grantland down at the knees. According to ComScore traffic numbers from last year, the site is dwarfed in size by competitors, and it likely draws significant portions of that traffic from Simmons’ podcasts and infrequent columns, which will obviously be ending. Observers have also long speculated as to whether a site dedicated to giving writers the time they need to produce high-quality journalism without the pressure to quickly produce newsy or viral content is a sustainable business model.
What happens to a vanity project when the person whose vanity it was intended to soothe is forced to leave? Are the Grantland writers primarily loyal to the site or to its founder? And will ESPN neglect it to the point that there’s a mass exodus from the site?
I can see a few potential scenarios playing out. Maybe ESPN will pass the site to another marquee editor and allow it to live on for prestige reasons. Or maybe the network will treat the newly shorn Grantland like it does with the fantastic investigative journalism program Outside the Lines: essentially ignoring it until it just sort of fades away. (Outside the Lines is often buried in low-performing time slots, and one could foresee a circumstance where ESPN’s website stops promoting Grantland on its home page to the extent that it currently does.) Or maybe Simmons tries to rebuild his site with a different name with the support of another partner site or venture capital firm. This seems like it might be a tricky proposition, but it is at least plausible based on the report of the departure of Grantland publisher David Cho on the same day as Simmons.
Still, I hope ESPN doesn’t go the route of defenestrating the site. While there are more outlets for good, substantive sports writing now than there were, say, four years ago, there still aren’t that many. Grantland is one of the best. The site has shown that it can produce consistently worthwhile content even in Simmons’ shadow. Now it deserves a chance to see what it can become on its own.