Bill Simmons’s ESPN legacy is much bigger than his byline. Over the last six years, he has conceived of the acclaimed documentary series 30 for 30 and launched ESPN’s high-quality sports and entertainment offshoot, Grantland. Soon he won’t have either. But he’ll always have the thing he’s best at (and no, that’s not his writing), and what might just be his only truly marketable skill.
ESPN president John Skipper announced Friday that he decided not to renew Simmons’s contract, which expires at the end of September. “[Grantland] long ago went from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own,” Skipper told the New York Times, ostensibly explaining why Grantland will continue post-Simmons but also letting slip why he felt comfortable ending contract talks nearly five months earlier than he had to.
Simmons had a great idea with 30 for 30 and showed a strong eye for talent and management—one only has to look so far as ESPN’s Black Grantland to understand that putting together a great staff, even with a basically unlimited budget, is far from easy. But the last few years have proven that Simmons isn’t actually the multiplatform media mogul he thinks he is. Rather, he is a successful writer and podcaster that was able to wrap his hands around the golden ticket: the full weight and backing of the largest sports media conglomerate on earth.
Two months ago at SXSW, Simmons gave a revealing interview to Re/code that included this exchange:
Grantland looks like it’s getting more and more ambitious — you guys are doing a lot more video, you’re producing movies, and you have a TV show on ESPN now.
It’s weird that nobody gives us credit for this. I think we have the best multimedia site right now. I don’t even know who we’re competing with. I don’t mean to be conceited — we just do the most things.
As editor-in-chief of ESPN’s largest and best-promoted vanity site it should be imperative that Simmons understands the media landscape, but this is tone-deaf. The only way he could possibly believe that nobody gives Grantland any credit is if he is entirely ensconced in his own self-referential bubble.
Earlier this year Grantland was nominated for three National Magazine Awards, arguably the most prestigious media awards after the Pulitzers. The only publications nominated for more are the cream of the media crop, and none are online-only: New York Magazine, Bon Appetit, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, GQ, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Grantland’s nominations were for feature writing, columns and commentary, and video; just the sort of multimedia for which Simmons claims Grantland doesn’t receive any credit. Last year the 30 for 30 Shorts series—which appear on Grantland—took home a primetime Emmy. Grantland has been nominated for Sports Emmys, Webby Awards, and EPPY Awards, and won a handful.
But far more telling than any industry award, Grantland’s continued existence is proof enough that ESPN suits are giving it credit for high-quality work, because they certainly aren’t keeping it alive for its revenue or traffic.
Grantland revenue numbers are hard to come by, but every discussion I have had with ESPNers about them centers around not whether Grantland is losing money, but how much. “Grantland is an artistic success, but it is not close to making money” an “ESPN insider” told Sports Illustrated. ESPN public relations staffers have unsurprisingly declined to speak to Grantland’s revenue in the past, instead redirecting the conversation and trumpeting Grantland’s atomizable content that pops up everywhere within ESPN’s empire. In other words, they put forth a non-revenue argument for Grantland’s continued existence.
Unlike dollar figures, we do have good traffic data. These are February and March 2015 unique visitor numbers from comScore for Grantland and a few of its competitors—this is my classification of competitors, as Simmons said he isn’t sure who he is competing with:
The A.V. Club
comScore numbers are far from perfect, but they’re an industry standard used by advertisers and provide the best basis for comparison between different websites. And this is with Grantland receiving the powerful traffic firehose from prime placement on ESPN.com, one of the 100 most visited websites in the world. Grantland is doing excellent work; readers haven’t rewarded that with proportionate patronage. ESPN executives can’t help but believe that the Bill Simmons brand alone isn’t enough to build an audience that justifies his cost.
Grantland’s traffic is rough enough when put in context, but it is downright startling that the website is still in business when you consider its expenses. Grantland’s contributors page lists 55 names: 24 staff writers, 14 editors, and 17 contributors, most of whom write fairly often. Another 12 editors not listed as contributors show up on Grantland’s masthead. That’s 50 editorial staffers, plus a deep pool of regular contributors.
By contrast, Deadspin has a masthead of 17, depending upon exactly how you count, with a few regular contributors. The A.V. Club masthead lists 32 people, 14 of whom are not staffers but “contributing writers.” SB Nation has a masthead of only four, but that obscures the difference between the paid staffers and the poorly paid editors/contributors at the more than 300 individual team sites. A back-of-the-envelope tally of SB Nation’s equivalent of full-time editorial staffers sees them with more than the A.V. Club and fewer than Grantland. (SB Nation declined to provide hard numbers.)
Grantland has an editorial budget that provides for both quantity as well as quality—few online outlets have the cash to lure reigning Pulitzer Prize winners—and spent it freely, with the average Grantland staffer being very well-compensated by industry standards. When you factor in that Simmons himself is reportedly paid as much as $5 million annually, you begin to wonder how the site lasted this long without major cutbacks.
Simmons obviously doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a pivotal time for the site,” he told Re/code. “At some point we’ve got to either start growing, or we have to figure out what’s going to happen.” The growth Simmons desired was in headcount. “You can’t just say ‘Okay — we’re good, after three years — we don’t need more people.’” According to James Andrew Miller, Simmons hasn’t increased his staff size since May 2014. The site is a bit larger—a number of contributors became staffers and had their roles formalized over the last year—but the point stands. Grantland didn’t expand in the past year the way it did during its first three.
But as frustrating as it must have been for his higher-ups to say no to potential hires, Simmons drifted into the realm of delusion when he told Re/code that “we’ve always been understaffed, always.” That alone would be justification for not renewing his contract. If Grantland was truly understaffed, given the height of the masthead and the salaries paid out, Bill Simmons and his top lieutenants did a dreadful job of utilizing the talent they assembled.
Still, if Bill Simmons’s biggest failure had been that Grantland was a loss leader that won the company unquantifiable prestige, he’d still be part of ESPN. But as another brainchild of the guy brought in to succeed on every possible platform, The Grantland Basketball Hour has struggled on draw TV viewers:
Compared to the shows that lead into and out of The Grantland Basketball Hour, as well as to the shows that appeared in the same time slot the weeks before and after, the ratings are comparable at best, and in most cases significantly worse. There have only been eight shows and the erratic scheduling does it no favors, but this is how Simmons asked to be judged when he left NBA Countdown after losing the battle to mold it to his liking. He has creative control over a show that appears on ESPN in primetime, and at best, its ratings are indistinguishable from replacement-level ESPN programming. Simmons’s supposedly enormous podcast and mailbag audience—yup, those are his readers—haven’t followed him to TV. Or if they have, they’re the only ones watching.
After two years on NBA Countdown and one on The Grantland Basketball Hour, it is safe to say that Bill Simmons does not have a great TV presence. The things that make him an entertaining writer—long-winded analogies, off-color comments, self-referentialism—don’t work on TV. On NBA Countdown in particular, he clearly chafed at being unable to control the direction of the show, once famously complaining that Sage Steele waited too long to throw to him. He forced Michael Wilbon out, leading Magic Johnson to leave ESPN. The Grantland Basketball Hour is sometimes different, in a good way, but to a non-Grantland devotee just flipping through the channels, watching it feels like barging in on an unfamiliar conversation. And the best parts always involve people who aren’t Simmons.
This isn’t to say that Simmons cannot develop into a great TV presence, just that in three years he hasn’t. This might not be entirely his fault—perhaps the NBA Countdown producers should have been more receptive to his ideas—but it is true, and something that potential suitors must be aware of. And if Simmons isn’t a TV draw, and if his website is losing money, why in the world would ESPN pay him even more money?
Where Bill Simmons did succeed, and where he might be smart to focus his energies in the future, is in podcasts. His B.S. Report is currently the second highest-ranked podcast on the iTunes sports and entertainment charts, and his basketball-only podcast, Bill Don’t Lie, is third. Two other Grantland podcasts are in the top 10.
In the Re/code interview, he complained about ESPN not building him a sponsored podcast studio:
You’ve been podcasting for a while, and the money part seems like it has frustrated you the whole time. At some point do you think about bailing on the idea?
No, because they pay me a salary. It’s not like I have a percentage of what my podcast gets.
I do think, as a competitive person, the fact that we don’t have a sponsored studio yet is just perplexing to me. We shoot like 15 hours of TV in there. But I also don’t know anything about ad sales, and it’s probably a much more complicated landscape than I’m giving it credit for. But to me, that’s a no-brainer.
Here, his understanding of content and economics finally align. As much backing and support as ESPN may have given him for podcasts, it should have given him even more. Direct-response advertisers work particularly well for podcasts, but shouldn’t someone have been able to sell the B.S. Report to advertisers well enough so that Simmons didn’t have to read off ads for scams like Stamps.com? I mean, podcasts are where he was actually making ESPN money.
In March, Simmons provided a potential clue about his future, tweeting out an article about good friend Adam Corolla’s independent podcasting company. According to Carolla and his CFO, The Adam Carolla Show earned $4.4 million in revenue last year, with $2 million in profit. Again: a free, daily podcast hosted by Adam Carolla netted $2 million in profit last year. You don’t think Simmons, with a diehard audience large enough to support a low-expense enterprise like podcasting, could earn similar cash if he struck out on his own? It is his one speciality in which he is a genuine force. It would also give him one of the few things he seems to crave more than money: creative freedom.
You can’t spend 15 minutes on the internet without stumbling across a thinkpiece proclaiming this the Age of the Podcast. Serial became a bonafide cultural phenomenon, and Slate has bet its future on them. Compared to TV the money involved with podcasts is still small potatoes, but they’re poised to emerge as revenue generating machines—and are nimble enough to turn profits easier than can television shows, which require exponentially larger production budgets.
The mechanics of podcast listening—you have to seek out and actively subscribe—favor those, like Simmons, who are better at building devoted audiences than entertaining large fleeting ones. This means most B.S. Report listeners are frequent ones, and thus understand and appreciate the in-jokes and references. He books quality guests and lets them talk at length about interesting things, and while sometimes he forces them to nod along in fake agreement at some asinine theory, Simmons also asks good questions and makes them feel comfortable enough to open up and share stories they otherwise would not have. It works well.
Bill Simmons has been podcasting longer than almost any other major media figure—remember that ESPN nixed then-candidate Barack Obama’s appearance on the B.S. Report—and is genuinely very good at it.
Somebody—Turner, Fox Sports, Vox, a venture capital firm—is going to give Bill Simmons a dumptruck full of money, and if they are planning on him doing anything other than podcasting full time, they might as well just burn it. Bill Simmons shouldn’t be on TV, and more saliently, hasn’t done anything to prove that he is worth TV money, which is unrealistically inflating budgets even at online-only outlets under the same corporate umbrellas as broadcasters.
Paying Bill Simmons TV money—and the reported $6 million he was seeking from ESPN is TV money, at the term’s most pejorative—is a risky proposition that presumes he has television talent that for some reason never surfaced during his three years on television, and that his petulance won’t get in the way of him finding it. Instead, a smart media company would bring him on as a guy who can do one thing very well (podcasting), and can do another well enough to draw an audience (writing)—and not as the one-man panacea he expects to be paid like. ESPN was tired of hemorrhaging money to Simmons; why should it be different anywhere else?
Correction: This story originally said that SB Nation’s traffic numbers included their entire network of team sites. They do not; the numbers are only for the SBNation.com domain.