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Can ESPN Solve Its Grantland Problems?

Jason Barrett

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In the five short months since ESPN president John Skipper bounced Grantland founder and boss Bill Simmons out of ESPN, many on the Grantland staff have experienced five long months of chaos and aftershock. Last week saw the exodus of five key Grantland editorial figures, and that followed the departure in September of Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Wesley Morris, who just last year, turned down a job offer from The New York Times to continue working at Simmons’s side. Morris is now critic at large at The New York Times.

If that wasn’t enough, multiple sources have confirmed that one of the staffers who left, deputy editor Sean Fennessey, was offered Simmons’s old job as Grantland’s editor in chief, the post currently held by Chris Connelly. Fennessey turned ESPN down, deciding instead to join Simmons in a new digital venture, along with other ex-Grantlanders Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin, and Chris Ryan. Dan Fierman also left to serve as vice president and editorial director of MTV News.

For an ESPN management team that has been struggling to find the right moves in the aftermath of the Simmons explosion, Fennessy’s “thanks but no thanks” has to be a frustrating, and arguably humiliating, rejection. Despite declarations of support from Bristol Central, it leaves Grantland facing more uncertainty than ever.

Discussions on background with Grantland staffers past and present (ESPN executives associated with Grantland declined to talk on the record or on background for this column) reveal that the site is beset by a climate of fear, a cycle of mistrust, and a belief amongst several that staff are “treated like children.” An overall lack of communication with management has been beyond frustrating for the staff. Many heard about Connelly’s appointment on their Twitter feeds—precisely where Simmons had learned of his dismissal.

Since its 2011 founding, Grantland has served as a channel for Simmons to expand the Grantland staff’s distinctive point of view to journalism and criticism, a no-fear zone within the ESPN empire. That privileged position can safely be considered history. There is fear now, not only for the survival of the staff—with still more departures rumored imminent—but also for the survival of Grantland itself, unthinkable as that may have seemed even a year ago. Staff-wide angst continues to grow despite a Herculean effort by ESPN to dispense metrics suggesting traffic on the site is stronger than ever, implicitly arguing that Simmons’s departure had little effect on the almighty numbers.

But interpreting metrics for Grantland is a total quagmire, because there are simply too many ways of slanting the stats—e.g., sourcing, ignoring how often stories were featured on the ESPN.com home page, visibility on the mobile app, etc. ESPN management and staunch Simmons defenders could both take turns in front of a jury and make compelling cases that things are either better or worse than before Simmons’s departure.

The arguments over metrics are reminiscent of the restive squabbling earlier this summer about whether or not the site was profitable. On several occasions, Skipper reassured Grantland personnel concerned about profitability, telling them not to worry about dollars and that what ESPN needed was “soul,” along with “other things that matter,” apart from scores and statistics. (Speaking onstage at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit last week, Simmons conceded that Grantland was not profitable: “It was probably like right around even.”)

Over the last two years, ESPN management had heard from Simmons many times that he didn’t think they were selling Grantland aggressively enough. ESPN sources place annual ad revenue for Grantland at about $6 million a year, including the Web site and a Simmons podcast, but since his departure from ESPN, Simmons has rolled out his own (and his owned) podcast, which, according to an industry expert, is probably worth north of $5 million in yearly revenue alone. Thus Simmons is now making for himself roughly the same as Grantland’s entire annual ad-sales revenue.

The key and practical predicament now is whether ESPN should continue with the site at all. Grantland was never the kind of enterprise ESPN would have attempted were it not for the fact that Simmons—for a while, ESPN’s highest-paid employee—wanted it. And in the beginning of the site, ESPN executives John Skipper, John Walsh, and Rob King paid a great deal of attention to it, and their star.

To read the rest of the article visit Vanity Fair where it was originally published

Sports TV News

NBC Officially Unveils Noah Eagle, Todd Blackledge as New Big Ten Booth

“With their collective college football experience and great enthusiasm for the game, Todd, Noah and Kathryn join a production team that can’t wait to kick off the Big Ten season.”

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It’s officially official: Noah Eagle, Todd Blackledge, and Kathryn Tappen will join the Big Ten on NBC booth when the network begins airing the conference’s football package in 2023.

NBC made the announcement Thursday, after weeks of speculation about the moves.

“We are excited to showcase Big Ten Saturday Night on the NBC Sports’ primetime marquee,” said NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood. “When you hear Todd’s voice, you know it’s a big college football game. It has been that way for decades.

“Noah is one of the industry’s rising young play-by-play commentators, who has excelled calling numerous sports across multiple platforms for a wide range of audiences. We are thrilled to pair him in the booth with Todd.

“Kathryn has told the stories of so many memorable Notre Dame Football moments over the last decade in her on-field reporting and interviews,” Flood continued. “With their collective college football experience and great enthusiasm for the game, Todd, Noah and Kathryn join a production team that can’t wait to kick off the Big Ten season.”

Blackledge joins NBC after working as a college football analyst for the network for the past 17 seasons. Previously, he was the an analyst for CBS and ABC, making 2023 his 30th consecutive season covering college football as an analyst.

Eagle is the son of broadcasting legend Ian Eagle, and currently serves as the radio voice of the Los Angeles Clippers. He comes to NBC after calling college football games for FOX Sports in 2022.

Tappen has spent the past nine seasons working NBC’s college football coverage with Notre Dame. Eight of those nine seasons were spent as the network’s sideline reporter before anchoring the studio coverage from South Bend in 2022.

2023 will mark the beginning of a seven-year contract for NBC to air Big Ten football games in primetime. The move is one of the biggest notable expansions in the college football arena for the network since its partnership with Notre Dame began in 1991.

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CBS Tried ‘Intervention’ With Tony Romo

“They knew, they anticipated this. That’s a credit to them, the people in charge there. But it has not gotten better.”

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After his performance during the 2022 season, many have questioned why CBS Sports NFL analyst Tony Romo has seemed off his game after seeing high praise during the early stages of his broadcasting career.

A recent nugget from Andrew Marchand of The New York Post claims CBS executives attempted an “intervention” with Romo before the season.

“Tony Romo needs to study more,” Marchand said during The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. “He needs to be better prepared. As you move away from the sidelines, you need to do more work. I know CBS is aware of this. They tried an intervention last offseason. They knew, they anticipated this. That’s a credit to them, the people in charge there. But it has not gotten better.”

Marchand also argued that it appears as if Romo’s partner — Jim Nantz — is content to let the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback struggle.

“This was the narrative out of CBS when Romo was getting all of the publicity: you heard from Nantz’ side and people from CBS that Nantz was the one creating Romo,” quipped Marchand. “The issue now is, why isn’t Nantz helping Romo get to this next level?”

Romo — who signed a 10-year, $180 million contract with CBS in 2020 — addressed his critics in an interview with Jenna Lemoncelli of The New York Post, saying he’s simply trying new things.

“I mean, some changes are good, some you’re like, ‘Ah, I shouldn’t do that’. But I always trial and error a bunch and sometimes it works.”

The 42-year-old Romo appeared to push back on the insinuation that he doesn’t prepare for broadcasts like he used to during the interview.

“You’re going to fail all the time, but at the same time, you succeed because of that, as long as you think about it and try to understand how to improve and then go about the process to make that happen, which is work ethic and commitment. But you got to have a plan for it before.”

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Jason Benetti: Negotiations With Chicago White Sox ‘Kind of A Pain’

“I just thought it would be easier. But just because it wasn’t easier doesn’t mean it didn’t get done.”

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Jason Benetti

Jason Benetti and Steve Stone recently saw their contracts renewed by NBC Sports Chicago to team once more as the television voices of the Chicago White Sox. Benetti says the talks about a renewal weren’t without their hiccups.

In a profile with Chicago Sun-Times writer Jeff Agrest, Benetti said the talks about the situation weren’t exactly what he envisioned.

“The really good news is we got somewhere good,” Benetti said. “It was kind of a pain, really. There were some things that we had to get through that I thought were silly, and I’m sure they thought some of the stuff that I was talking about might’ve been silly. But we got there in the end.”

Agrest reported the Atlanta Braves were watching the situation with bated breath. Their television play-by-play announcer, Chip Caray, recently departed for the same position with the St. Louis Cardinals.

One of the sticking points in the negotiations between the White Sox and Benetti was how many regular season contests he would miss due to his work with FOX Sports. Benetti is announcing MLB and college football games for the network in 2023 and did his first NFL work for FOX Sports this season. Benetti admitted that were points of frustration along the way.

“I think the work has been strong and I appreciate the heck out of the fans and I have loved the Sox for all my life. I just thought it would be easier. But just because it wasn’t easier doesn’t mean it didn’t get done. Where I have put myself, totally honestly, the place I am is we got it done, and that means something. It means both sides wanted it to happen.”

Chicago White Sox Senior Vice President of Revenue and Marketing Brooks Boyer told Agrest he didn’t see any complications in the negotiations.

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