I got a text from a friend last Friday afternoon. "I hate ESPN," he said.
"Don't hate the player, hate the game," I responded.
ESPN has expectedly taken much of the blame after it broke the news of Grantland's demise. Yes, it might have made some mistakes with the site along the way, but the company isn't the villain here.
Grantland had an estimated annual revenue of $5 million. Bill Simmons, Grantland's former editor-in-chief, was making $5 million a year himself at ESPN although that also reflected his responsibilities on TV and with 30 For 30 productions. But with a staff of at least 40 other people, there is a possibility that Grantland was operating at a loss, depending on the accounting breakdown for Simmons.
As Robert Lipsyte, former ESPN ombudsman, writes in The Nation, "Without its beneficiary and editor-in-chief, ESPN had no need for an entertaining and prestigious niche that made little or no money."
A year ago the company had an estimated value of more than $50 billion, so Grantland fans have argued that ESPN boss John Skipper had the luxury of continuing to bet on Grantland. But recent cost-cutting have included 350 layoffs -- a good reason not to gamble.
Grantland fans contest there was other value to the site. Simmons was arguably the face of ESPN -- he has 4.71 million Twitter followers -- before his May breakup with the company. The site's pop culture features introduced a new dynamic to ESPN and helped it gain a strong following with the college crowd. On Facebook, Simmons shared a heartfelt article by a Grantland reader about what Grantland meant to him.
"We always wanted at least a few college kids to feel this way about us," Simmons said.
Like me. Grantland existed from June 2011 to October 2015. I was in college from September 2011 to June 2015. I discussed articles with my Northwestern friends and Grantland was a fixture of my Medill journalism classes.
But from a practical stance, Simmons' post traces back to the root of the problem. The National and Spy are gone, with the former lasting only 18 months. In all three cases, quality of work was never the issue.
If there is any disappointment fans should have in ESPN, it is that the company did not take enough risks with Grantland. The site thrived in the 18-29 age demographic, but when I talked to my parents' generation, Grantland was almost unknown, even by sports fans. Most Grantland links weren't always easy to find on ESPN.com. ESPN barely linked Grantland to its social media accounts or mentioned the site on TV.
a site that got two interviews with Barack Obama just got shut down.
— Rembert Browne (@rembert) October 30, 2015
ESPN has said it will honor the contracts of Grantland writers and find spots for them elsewhere such as ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
@katiebakes The whole "Grantland was the only place at ESPN for good writing" thing is nice but not actually true and getting kind of weird.
— Down Goes Brown (@DownGoesBrown) November 2, 2015
The creation of the site was essentially a promotion and reward to Simmons for what he had done in the previous decade at ESPN. It was where Simmons had built his brand, and it was the perfect next step for him. But he and the company evolved. Without stronger revenue, the site became vulnerable as ESPN's overall financial situation shifted.
But the sensibility of Grantland is still attractive, and HBO, which signed him to multi-year, multi-platform contract, might provide a more favorable economic model. Simmons has already hired four top editors from Grantland. Simmons started his own podcast Oct. 1, and based on early projections, he could earn as much as $5 million a year in revenue on this project alone.
I read too many times this weekend that there will never be another Grantland. Not at ESPN, but there already is.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.