ESPN shuts down Grantland, effective immediately

ESPN will shut down Grantland, the pop culture-heavy sub-site started by Bill Simmons in 2011.

The network issued a statement Friday afternoon:

“Effective immediately we are suspending the publication of Grantland. After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.”

According to Grantland’s “contributors” page, the site has 32 writers and editors, with numerous others listed as contributors to the site. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter put the number of people affected by the site’s termination at 40, and said on Twitter that some will remain with the company. This was confirmed by ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys, who said on Twitter that “the intent is to use the sportswriters on other ESPN platforms.”

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Soltys added that all of the site’s writers will have the contracts honored.

It remains to be seen what the network plans to do with the site’s archives.

James Andrew Miller, who co-wrote the oral history on ESPN, said the decision happened recently:

“The decision to end @Grantland33 was a very recent one according to sources at @espn.”

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Grantland’s future had been a topic of speculation among media circles since ESPN announced in May that it would not renew Simmons’s contract. The relationship between the network and Simmons, its most visible writer, had long been strained, with Simmons receiving a three-week suspension in October 2014 after he called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “a liar” during a Grantland podcast.

Simmons has since joined forces with HBO and has resumed his podcasts, with longtime entertainment journalist Chris Connelly taking his place as Grantland’s top editor on an interim basis.

The site has seen an exodus of talent over the past month. Four staffers – Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin and Chris Ryan – resigned to join Simmons at HBO, and Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman, who co-founded the site with Simmons, left ESPN to become vice president and editorial director of MTV News. Prominent Grantland writers Rembert Browne (New York magazine) and Wesley Morris (The New York Times) also have departed in recent weeks.

Last week, Miller wrote a story for Vanity Fair describing Grantland’s uncertain future and saying the remaining staffers were suspicious of ESPN’s plans for the site based on a lack of communication from the network’s top officials:

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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.

Simmons echoed that notion upon his return to podcasting earlier this month, all but accusing ESPN of trying to sabotage the site through poor story placement on the main website.

“We were not even on their mobile page until I think January,” he said. “We just had this tiny little hyperlink at the bottom of the ESPN Mobile site. You can say they supported with salaries and bandwidth and all of that stuff and that’s fine but there is more that goes into it.”

“These guys weren’t trying to make us succeed,” he added.

One Grantland freelance writer said Friday he learned about the site’s demise – and his looming unemployment – through social media.

“Well that’s the first time I’ve ever found out I was laid off via Twitter.” Michael Baumann posted. “I was never anything but a freelancer there, so I’m not high up on the list of people to tell, but some advance warning would’ve been nice.”

ESPN President John Skipper, who said the network “remains committed to Grantland and we have a strong team in place” in announcing the decision to part ways with Simmons earlier this year, denied Simmons’s comments during an interview Wednesday with Sports Business Daily at the Sports Media Technology conference in New York.

“It’s completely inaccurate to say that Bill Simmons and Grantland didn’t get enough support,” he said.

ESPN touted Grantland’s continued readership growth in a recent news release, announcing that the site had its second-highest readership numbers ever – in terms of unique visitors – during the month of July. But that accounted for only about 10 percent of ESPN’s total unique visitors in July, the last month such comparable figures could be determined.

Speculation about Grantland’s future also ramped up last week after ESPN laid off around 300 employees – many of them on the production and talent-development side – as a cost-cutting move in the wake of the spiraling television-rights costs combined with a shrinking subscriber base and demands from parent company Disney to maintain ESPN’s massive profits.

Despite Grantland’s demise, ESPN remains committed to the Undefeated, the long-planned sub-site centered on sports and race that has had a rocky, years-long gestation period. After parting ways with Jason Whitlock, who was originally tabbed to shepherd the project into existence, ESPN hired Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida to run the site last week.