ESPN killed Grantland today. There were hints that this would happen, starting with the departure of Grantland founder Bill Simmons in May. This summer, news broke that ESPN would be making enormous budget cuts over the next two years. Last month, Grantland suffered a crippling blow when four top editors—Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin, and Chris Ryan—left on the same day to join Simmons at a still-unannounced project, and Dan Fierman, Grantland’s editorial director, went to MTV. When Deadspin reached out to ESPN last week to ask if Grantland was being shuttered, a spokesman declined comment. Today it became official. The 40-odd remaining writers and editors at the sports and culture website found out virtually when everyone else did.
This morning, interim editor-in-chief Chris Connelly told his staff that there was a mandatory conference call at 1:50 p.m. Some writers were out on assignment; one was even at an airport. Once everyone called in, Connelly broke the news. According to Buzzfeed, he started off by letting the staff know that “ESPN has decided to direct its time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across its enterprise” before congratulating them for all the great work they’d done.
John Walsh, the longtime ESPN executive editor often credited with launching Simmons’s career and helping to birth Grantland, says he’s less surprised that the axe fell than by the timing. “Oh, wow,” Walsh, who retired earlier this year, said upon getting the news. He let on that he “had some sense that this could happen” after taking some time to collect his thoughts on the death of his protege’s brainchild.
“I didn’t know it would be now,” he said. “This was Bill’s vision and Bill’s baby and these were Bill’s hires, and he’s brilliant. I’m sad that it’s ending, just like the rest of the people who are concerned with the literate sports word world. It’s a loss.”
In retrospect, the editorial exodus looks to have been more or less the end. One Grantlander says that no one knew the four editors were leaving to join Simmons until the day they left. That’s because, another source says, Simmons has been warring with ESPN both by acting as a source for writer Jim Miller, and by more nefarious means.
While Grantland writers are on contract, editors are at-will. The four editors’ exits were coordinated, and Simmons, according to this source, told the editors who jumped ship with him that a condition of their employment was that they couldn’t warn anyone at ESPN they were leaving, in order to hit the site as hard as possible.
“He put his beef with [ESPN president John] Skipper above the jobs of dozens of people,” one Grantland staffer said.
It’s still up in the air what will happen to all of the staffers. ESPN says it will honor its contracts. Grantland’s sportswriters are expected to be brought over to ESPN.com. As one senior ESPN source told CNN, “We’re getting out of the pop culture business.”