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ESPN’s Skipper Explains Why He Shut Down Grantland

Jason Barrett

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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

Sports TV News

Nick Kahn: Vince McMahon Played WWE Hiatus Smart

“Sometimes I think it’s just a three mile radius of LA thing. The ‘Hey, step down and you have to be punished for it’.”

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Nick Kahn is now the sole CEO of the WWE after Stephanie McMahon announced her exit from the company, which came in the wake of news that Vince McMahon would return to oversee the exploration of either a sale or merger. On the latest episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, Kahn said that even while McMahon was away from the company, he never considered himself the boss.

“My thought has always been there’s only one boss at WWE and it ain’t me,” he told Simmons. “Vince is the creator and founder of the company. He’s also the controlling shareholder, which as you know, that’s not a work term. That’s a legal term of art. So I think it was always my point of view or Stephanie’s point of view that at some point he would come back. I think the way that he played it was smart, Bill, in that he went away for five or six months — which the audience seems to like that — and then he came back and took control back of his company.”

Vince McMahon exited the WWE power structure five months ago amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and the revelation that he used company money to cover up those allegations.

When asked if he is worried that McMahon’s return could turn off business partners or fans, Kahn pointed out that so far, that hasn’t happened. He wonders if there is really a strong feeling amongst the public about McMahon being back involved with the company at all.

“Sometimes I think it’s just a three mile radius of LA thing. The ‘Hey, step down and you have to be punished for it’.”

Nick Kahn says he made it a point to visit Vince monthly during his hiatus. Those were not business visits. He said that he, Stephanie McMahon, and Triple H had total control during that time.

Bill Simmons pressed Kahn, wondering if it bothered McMahon that wrestling fans seemed very happy with the WWE product without his involvement. Simmons reasoned that when anyone builds a creative product for as long as Vince McMahon built the WWE, there is a part of that person that wants to know the product cannot survive without him.

“To me, I never got a sense from him of any sort of bitterness or anything like that,” Kahn said. “He seemed, through the first month of his hiatus, thrilled.”

Since Vince McMahon’s return, Nick Kahn says he has not expressed any concerns about decisions made in his absence and he has largely still been hands off with the creative side of the business. His sole focus is finding the right business relationship to secure WWE’s future. He added that it is not a responsibility that McMahon is taking on alone.

“I’m involved in it. Triple H is involved in it. The board is obviously involved in it, Triple H being on the board, as I have the good fortune of being as well. We’ll see how it plays out. It should not be a lengthy process.”

Kahn did address two rumors floating around Vince McMahon’s return and the power structure of WWE. He said that any rumor that a deal had been done with Saudi Arabia to sell the company was “100 percent fake. 100 percent made up.”

Simmons also asked him about the relationship between Vince and his daughter Stephanie McMahon after she announced her resignation as co-CEO. Kahn said that both he and Stephanie always assumed it was likely Vince would return to lead the company. Anything beyond that, he isn’t interested in commenting on.

“It’s important to anyone listening to this, if you’re going to join a family business and you’re not part of the family, stay out of the family business part. That’s rule number one.”

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Sports TV News

Stephen A. Smith Details How Kobe Bryant Handled Criticism

“Kobe was a savant. You did not know more basketball than Kobe Bryant.”

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We are approaching the three-year anniversary of the untimely and tragic death of former NBA legend Kobe Bryant, and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith reminisced about the former Laker during an appearance on The Howard Stern Show Wednesday.

While promoting his book, Straight Shooter, Smith shined a light on his relationship with the five-time champion, saying he knew if he received a phone call from Bryant, the resulting conversation was likely to be contentious.

“Kobe scared the living shit out of me,” Smith said. “Kobe was a savant. You did not know more basketball than Kobe Bryant. So when Kobe called you — I can quote him for you right now. Voicemail: ‘You know who this is, motherf—er. Get your ass up, pick up the f—ing phone and call me back. That bullshit you just said. And don’t keep me waiting for so long, either. Your ass better not go on the air and say some more shit before you talk to me.’ That was Kobe. I would say something along the lines of ‘I don’t like the way he’s playing. It’s selfish basketball…I don’t like this decision.'”

Smith continued by commenting on Bryant rebutting that he would only play “selfish basketball” when the players around him weren’t playing up to their potential, before then saying Bryant was open to criticizing coaches if Smith was critical of the 18-time All-Star.

“‘He don’t know what the f— he’s doing, Steve. He don’t know what the f— he’s doing, so you don’t know what the f— you’re talking about, Stephen A. So you’re gonna bring up all that shit you’re talking about me, but you didn’t bring up that.'”

Smith then concluded by saying Bryant would tell him “I don’t know why I love your ass. I really, really, don’t. But I love you.”

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Sports TV News

Super Wild Card Weekend Ratings Down Slightly From Last Year

Last year, the six games averaged 30.5 million viewers over linear television and streaming platforms.

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NFL

Ratings for nearly every Super Wild Card game of the NFL Playoffs opening weekend have been released, and while the numbers are encouraging on a per-game basis, overall, they show a slight dip from last season.

ESPN was first to unveil their ratings, showing Monday’s contest between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — which aired on both ESPN and ABC — was watched by an average of 30.6 million viewers. That number is the largest NFL audience from the Disney-owned channels since Super Bowl XL in February of 2006. The 30.6 million viewers number is a 32% increase from last season’s game that saw the Los Angeles Rams beat the Arizona Cardinals.

“This exceptional number proves once again that live sports are unequaled in amassing large audiences,” said ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro. “The success is also a clear reflection of how ESPN, working alongside the NFL and our colleagues at Disney, can help attract fans, build anticipation, and expand our reach. Even without a dramatic ending, it was an extraordinarily memorable evening.”

When final viewership totals were announced Wednesday evening, the company confirmed that the game was the most-watched NFL Playoff broadcast in the history of The Walt Disney Company’s ownership of ABC/ESPN, which began in 1996.

FOX Sports touted the highest viewership total of the weekend, with 33.2 million viewers watching the New York Giants defeat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. The broadcast peaked at over 40 million viewers in the final minutes of the game.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s San Francisco 49ers win over the Seattle Seahawks saw an average audience of 27.4 million.

An average of 28.6 million watched the Cincinnati Bengals thrilling triumph over the Baltimore Ravens on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. According to the network, the broadcast was the most-watched Sunday primetime program since Super Bowl LVI in February of 2022. Ratings for the Jaguars and Chargers broadcast on Saturday were not made available, but NBC Sports did claim that for the first time since 2021 both of its broadcasts eclipsed an average of 20 million viewers.

Finally, CBS Sports scored it’s most-watched Sunday AFC Wild Card game in nearly a decade as 30.8 million watched the Buffalo Bills defeat the Miami Dolphins. Similar to other broadcasts, the game peaked with nearly 40 million viewers. Coincidentally, the game was the most-streamed Wild Card game in the history of the network’s streaming platform, Paramount+.

Even with several networks experiencing noticeable highs, the numbers are a slight decrease from 2022. Last year, the six games averaged 30.5 million viewers on linear television and streaming platforms.

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