Say what you will about ESPN president John Skipper, but the guy knows how to come clean. Ever since ESPN announced the immediate shutdown of its revered Internet writing showcase Grantland on October 30, there has been, apart from a terse initial statement, little clarification from the network’s Bristol headquarters about why it happened, when it happened, and what it all means. Now that has changed.
“I made the decision,” Skipper says flatly. “There was no influence from [ESPN corporate parent] Disney on this. And I made sure that I divorced my feelings about Bill [Simmons] from this decision because I would never let that affect the people who are there.”
Skipper‘s decision to end Grantland was informed by the uncertainty surrounding the site‘s personnel and the resources and effort needed to keep the site thriving absent its star founder.
Throughout the 36 years of its existence, ESPN has weathered many a dramatic event—comings and goings of stars, programs, executives, and properties—but the intensity surrounding Grantland’s demise caught many at the network by surprise. Skipper admits to underestimating the effect Simmons’s exit would have, conceding it affected Grantland personnel more than he or perhaps anyone else on his management team anticipated.
“We lacked a full understanding of the bonding nature between Bill and those guys,” Skipper says now. But along with management failing to appreciate fully the bond between Simmons and his staff, it also misunderstood the Grantland culture—enough to imagine that turning the site over to Chris Connelly, brought in as a temporary Simmons replacement, would sit well with the staff.
“Chris was only going to be interim,” Skipper says. “It wasn’t his desire to be a long-term manager there. He made that clear to us. Chris is nothing but a good guy. This has been hard on him.”
In the past several months, two ESPN executives referred to the Grantland offices in Los Angeles as a media Jonestown, populated by a cult far more devoted to their leader than to just any old web site. Clearly, Connelly was marching into a difficult situation. When Skipper flew to L.A. in mid October, he made sure to give Connelly the bad news face-to-face.
“I had to fly out to Burbank on other business but felt that Chris and I are good enough friends that I wanted to talk to him in person. Chris had become an advocate for continuing it when he knew that there was a decision-making process happening. The decision was made the week before we announced it.”
Evidently, it was never an easy one. “In the weighing of a decision like this,“ Skipper says, “you look at the resources, the time, the energy necessary to do this well and balance that with the things you get from it. This was never a financial matter for us. The benefits were having a halo brand and being Bill Simmons related.”
The site was highly regarded inside and outside the media business and brought considerable prestige to the ESPN brand. Grantland, loftily named after erudite sportswriter Henry Grantland Rice, was considered a solid, sometimes-bold step into the world of sports-related journalism, becoming one of the most successful blends ever of sports with pop culture and current events and a paradise for serious writers who wanted to stretch and even experiment.
According to Skipper, there was a scenario by which Grantland would have been saved, and that was when Grantland editor Sean Fennessey was offered the top job.
“We did make Sean Fennessey an offer to become editor-in-chief,” Skipper says. “You ask, ‘If Sean had said yes, then would we have still made the same decision about the site,’ and the answer to that has to be ‘no.’ We would have kept it going. There was no way we would have made that job offer to him if we weren’t going to keep going.”
Fennessey declined to comment for this story, however, few, if any would doubt his loyalty to, and affection for, the site. But, his decision to follow his mentor Simmons off to new worlds wasn’t shocking. It was also clear to many that his decision to turn down the top job at Grantland reflected his uncertainty about ESPN’s commitment to the site. Grantland insiders were convinced Fennessey wondered if he would really have the resources needed to run the site and keep its reputation solid. He had also become aware, sources say, of rumors that ESPN wanted to cut Grantland back to just a sports site and eliminate its pop culture content.
In the weeks ahead, media insiders will watch to see how many of the former Grantland staff will find other writing duties at ESPN, migrate to HBO to re-unite with Simmons, or find work elsewhere. But the hard cold fact for now can be simply if crudely stated: Grantland is dead. Everyone needs to move forward. The noble experiment is over.
“I loved the site,” Skipper insists. “It pained me to make the decision. It was not without difficulty.”
To read the full story visit Vanity Fair where it was originally published
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at [email protected].
PFT Commenter: Hearing Crowd Reaction to Nick Chubb Replay ‘Almost Worse’ Than Showing It
“The entire crowd in Pittsburgh is just like, ‘oh, dear God, what did I just see?’.”
Members of the sports media continue to question ABC’s decision not to show a replay of Nick Chubb’s injury during Monday night’s game between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.
“That’s insane,” he said. “They showed us Damar Hamlin dying on the field.”
PFT Commenter added that showing a replay may actually have been the smarter move.
“So when it happened, Joe Buck was like, ‘And I’m being told that we’re not going to show the replay it’s that bad.’ As Joe Buck saying that, you hear the crowd reaction in Pittsburgh to them seeing the replay live,” he said. “And to me, that was almost worse than watching the replay because you hear that, and it’s a bunch of Pittsburgh fans who want Nick Chubb out of the game. They don’t want him injured, but they obviously don’t want to see him scoring touchdowns against them. And the entire crowd in Pittsburgh is just like, ‘oh, dear God, what did I just see?’. So what would we have to do? We’re basically entrapped into going online and looking for the replay.”
Big Cat echoed Dan Patrick’s belief that the appropriate thing to do would have been to show one replay and make a disclaimer so that the audience is clear that what they are about to see is brutal. He said that not showing the replay probably sent a lot of people to social media and to YouTube looking for video of the play to make the call for themselves.
“When Joe Buck says it’s so bad, we’re not going to show it to you, that’s like your parents being like, ‘No, you’re not allowed to watch this movie. It’s got tits in it.’ And then I’m like, ‘Wow, Braveheart’s awesome!’”
TNT Signs Entire NHL Studio Crew to Contract Extensions
“Wayne Gretzky, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter and Henrik Lundqvist all have new deals.”
With a new season on the horizon, TNT is not taking any chances with its NHL coverage. The network has inked its entire team of studio analysts to multi-year contract extensions.
Wayne Gretzky, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter and Henrik Lundqvist all have new deals. They will once again join Liam McHugh on the NHL on TNT set.
Gretzky, Bissonnette and Carter have all been with TNT since the network took over part of the NHL’s television rights ahead of the 2021-22 season. Lundqvist joined the crew last year after retiring following 15 seasons with the New York Rangers.
TNT will carry 62 regular season NHL games this year. The first one will be the Chicago Blackhawks’ visit to Boston on October 11.
As previously announced, TNT’s NHL games will all be available on the new B/R Sports tier available as an add-on for Max subscribers.
Stephen A. Smith: ‘People Don’t Care’ About Baseball Talk
“Tell the baseball community to shut the hell up.”
On Thursday night ahead of the New York Yankees’ matchup against the Toronto Blue Jays, ESPN featured commentator Stephen A. Smith will be on hand at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y. to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Smith, a fixture on ESPN programs First Take and NBA Countdown, along with hosting his own podcast, The Stephen A. Smith Show, grew up in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. and frequently watched Yankees games with his father. Despite living closer to Shea Stadium, he was not allowed to watch any New York Mets games until the age of 18, solidifying his love for the “Bronx Bombers.”
Throughout Thursday’s edition of First Take, Smith mentioned how excited he was for the moment and practiced throwing a baseball with ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky. One day earlier, however, he was criticized for a rare baseball take he made on the show pertaining to Los Angeles Angels superstar two-way player Shohei Ohtani.
Smith articulated that Ohtani is not worth $500 million because of the empty seats he frequently sees when the Angels take the field. After a promising first half, the Halos have struggled mightily down the stretch run and currently sport a 69-83 record, good for fourth place in the American League West division.
Within his podcast, he received a call from Preston Miklich who operates a YouTube channel focused on baseball called “Fuzzy.” The outlet has 469,000 subscribers and is a popular spot for baseball fans to catch up on news and rumors while also hearing informed opinions about the game.
During his conversation with Smith, Milkich took the time to inform him that the Angels are fourth in road attendance in the 2023 Major League Baseball regular season. In his response, the host appreciated being informed of the statistic and divulged that while it is an adequate figure compared to the competition, it may be comparatively underwhelming because of the diminished popularity of the game in recent years.
Attendance for Major League Baseball games has been on the rise throughout the 2023 season, with the league reporting a 9% increase year-over-year (YoY). Smith previously made insensitive comments about the Japanese superstar, saying that it was bad that one of the game’s preeminent superstars could not speak English, and apologized after an onslaught of criticism.
“We’re just wondering when it comes to your takes with baseball – we want you to talk baseball; we want ESPN to bring Baseball Tonight back, we miss it dearly,” Miklich explained, “but the baseball community almost thinks that you kind of peak on feelings and we think, ‘Okay, is baseball going to be done on ESPN?’”
The amount of baseball programming on the network has diminished in recent years compared to other properties, yet there is still an edition of Baseball Tonight that airs before the weekly broadcast of Sunday Night Baseball. In response to Miklich’s question, Smith bluntly expressed, “Tell the baseball community to shut the hell up.”
After pushback from Miklich, Smith chided him for interrupting his response and asked him to let him finish his statement. He then divulged that he does not have much time to watch baseball because of the responsibilities he has in other sports, revealing that he only watches New York Yankees games. Smith defended his position because of the fact that First Take rarely discusses baseball and, when it does, often has experts on the panel, such as Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo.
The Walt Disney Company pays a reported $550 million annually for MLB rights, which includes Sunday Night Baseball, the MLB Little League Classic, Home Run Derby and Wild Card series.
“I’m not on High Heat on the MLB Network trying to talk about baseball as if I’m watching every game and I’m an aficionado,” Smith said. “I don’t get to do that.”
Smith reminded Miklich that Russo, who hosts his own show on MLB Network, agreed with him that Ohtani is not worth $500 million. Moreover, he acknowledged that the morning debate program does not address many baseball topics because of the landscape of sports media consumers engaging with the content.
“People don’t care ratings-wise when we’re watching baseball,” Smith said. “We’re trying to change that.”
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