The fall of ESPN's Grantland - an enterprisey take

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 5, 2015
The fall of ESPN's Grantland was a blow to sports bloggers and fan like myself. But the postmortems missed the reason Grantland failed. Here's my enterprisey take - with six action steps to avoid the same fate.

Last week, ESPN sent shock waves through the sports blogosphere with their surprise kiboshing of sports/culture site Grantland. Grantland was an ESPN-owned site founded by recently-departed ESPN employee Bill Simmons. For sports fans who fancied a more literary take on their obsessions, Grantland was something of an oasis.

The end of Grantland was a body blow for folks like me who want to see longer form journalism succeed:

But the postmortems (mostly) missed the mark, blaming the fall of Grantland on Bill Simmons' cult of personality. Simmons rose to prominence as a Boston-based superfan. He took to blogging after smacking into career barriers on newspaper sports desks. In those early days, Simmons hedged his blogging bets with a bartender gig.

He ended up changing an industry by dumping pop culture and sports into a blogging blender. It's hard to appreciate just how riveting that once was. To read someone who loved the games as much as you, who took the losses just as hard as you, and whose writing was invigorated by betting his career on a format where word count was irrelevant and objectivity was exposed for the self-serving, bias-denying lie that it is - for a while there, it was really something.

Eventually, Simmons built up enough professional clout at ESPN to create and run Grantland. For someone whose career always had an anti-establishment spirit, Simmons turned out to be a surprisingly competent editorial manager. In enterprise terms, his departure left a succession void.

Blaming Grantland's closure on Simmons is simplistic

But the argument that ESPN canned Grantland because Simmons left is flawed. If Grantland was profitable, ESPN would have milked it in perpetuity. And: the timeline doesn't jive. Simmons left Grantland last May. Why would ESPN suddenly kill a media property that brought in six million page views a month?

One popular answer I've seen? "Long-form content sites are not sustainable." That's incorrect - but I grok the reasoning. The ROI of content remains a bugaboo (our own Barb Mosher Zinck just published a good piece on content marketing ROI). Enterprise content is (usually) about winning a specific demographic - not necessarily a mass market. And that's why we should kick tires on Grantland's demise, because Grantland did that targeted audience thing very well. So where did Grantland go wrong? Are we headed down the same flawed path?

When Simmons left Grantland, it was logging six million visitors a month (as per Deadspin, May 2015). An unnamed ESPN Insider told Sports Illustrated that Grantland was an "artistic success," but "it is not close to making money." Chris Connelly, who took over for Bill Simmons prior to Grantland's demise, also admitted that Grantland wasn't making money during a post-mortem Q/A:

When you are doing a site that you understand is not making money, you kind of understand when times get challenging or there is a new economic climate, you will be scrutinized very closely.

Ben Thompson of Stratechery weighed Grantland's traffic numbers against the unwieldy staff required:

Deadspin reported in May that Grantland had six million unique visitors in March, a relatively meager sum that in no way shape or form could support a team of over 50 writers, editors, and back-end staff.

Thompson goes on to contrast Grantland with Buzzfeed and Vox, sites which figured out how to mix meatier pieces with spammy linkbait crap in order to have a viable business model. Thompson gives credit to Buzzfeed and Vox for avoiding Grantland's content/budget imbalance, but all is not well. Thompson belly-aches about the crummy reader experience:

As a reader this is frustrating: Vox stripped down to the political and policy coverage that is its raison d’être would almost certainly rate as a destination site for me; instead, faced with a deluge of rewrites and summarized videos, I miss most of the good stuff save for what I stumble across on social media. I’m certainly not going to waste my time wading through the filler on the homepage.

ESPN's economic woes - and the problem of linkbait

Using linkbait crud to round out deeper content is not a viable enterprise approach for enterprises - a topic I'll return to in a sec. The economic backdrop bears a mention. ESPN is not used to economic adversity, but the combo of cable cord-cutting and surging broadcasting rights for sports leagues has proven to be a nasty cocktail. This led to announced layoffs of 300 employees in September, approximately five percent of ESPN's workforce.

Disney, ESPN's parent company, reportedly asked ESPN to trim $100 million of their budget in 2016 and $250 million in 2017, in anticipation of a massive new NBA TV deal. As Business Insider noted, upcoming layoffs will reportedly save ESPN $30-40 million annually.

Ben Thompson's conclusion: if ESPN cannot sustain Grantland, then the media business has polarized to the point where only the biggest web properties, or smallest one person micro-sites, can be economically viable. Grantland didn't seem to sweat monetization. The site was amazingly cautious about intrusive advertising, giving the site a very clean look.

But Thompson doesn't believe Grantland could have been economically successful - even with a blatant advertising scheme. Given the perils of ad blocking and the site's labor overhead, he has a point. In his final paragraph, Thompson finally nods at the issue enterprises should care about: content as a means to a different end.

That’s why the lesson to be learned from Grantland may be the exact opposite of what it seems: the problem isn’t that ESPN spent too much money on a web site that couldn’t monetize, it’s that the web site should only have been step one to a multi-media endeavor that converted visitors to fans willing to invest time in formats that can actually pay the bills.

What enterprises can learn from Grantland - six action items

Thompson's the only blogger who seems to grasp this, even if he leaves the implications twisting. Which brings us to the Grantland lessons enterprise marketers/publishers should study:

1. The heck with hipster fashion - focus your content on your specialty and forget the rest - ESPN took a big risk dedicating so much Grantland space to non-sports topics like movie reviews and TV podcasts. Enterprises who should focus their content around the authority they seek to establish. ESPN has caught on: the sports bloggers will (reportedly) be given writing jobs elsewhere on ESPN's web properties; the pop culture bloggers are moving on.

2. Beware the cult of personality - even though the departure of Simmons is overrated, it's a factor. Enterprises should be building content around expertise themes, not personalities. ESPN has grasped this also, opting against renewing the contracts of larger-than-life blowhards personalities Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock and Keith Olbermann. Yes, the best organizations let their talent shine, but that doesn't mean you sign over your business to "me-first" personas.

3. Have an editorial succession plan - When these personalities left/quit, it left a void in ESPN's brand. But: there's no reason an assistant editor can't step in and run a content shop - if such events are anticipated and trained for. Some claimed Simmons' recruitment of four key editors this month to his new (unannounced) venture was Grantland's deathblow. If true, that's absurd. I'm not a fan of non-competes, but ESPN should never have left itself contractually vulnerable to losing four key editors at once (my understanding is that the editors were not on ESPN's typical employment contract, enabling them all to jump ship). And last but not least:

4. Don't use separate editorial sites from your e-commerce engine - I don't know why it's taken so friggin' long to realize e-commerce and community are converging.  Amazon proved this out long ago, with embedded, gamified reviews being central to the company's e-commerce dominance. Creating a separate site with content that lacked the ESPN brand was a mistake. When Thompson refers to the increasing problem of building a true destination web site, he's referring to building up a dedicated reader community. But a destination web site should also be about commerce, and not just advertising.

The value exchange of reader data for opt-in content is much more valuable. ESPN also has paid subscription programs that could have been better monetized with Grantland as a subsection of their own site. By keeping Grantland writers to work on other ESPN properties, ESPN is conceding this point. Readers are not opposed to browsing relevant offers; they just don't want a pop-up advertising circus. Grantland seemed eager to hide its connection to commerce. Don't hide it, use it - as transparently as possible.

5. Build a business model that allows you to thrive on free content, thereby extending content marketing ROI - the problem with pure media sites is that the pressure is on to extract a pure monetization value from all content. This requires a narrow page view focus. Most enterprises are not pure media sites. They can tie sticky content into a range of action items, including e-commerce and lead gen activities like newsletter and webinar signups.

Tying digital content into the buying cycle enables a much more accurate (and expansive) content ROI calculation. It also gives your content more shelf life, and less pressure to perform immediately.

6. Experiment with different styles, formats, and content length, but not linkbait - Thompson may be right that mass market B2C media outlets must mix in viral junk to hit their traffic numbers, but enterprises can't afford to alienate key readers. The beauty is that enterprises are generally not dependent solely on advertising. That means you can emphasize content quality, and use some of the ROI thinking Barb Mosher Zinck shared to help content justify its value. A key trick here is repurposing content in different formats and styles.

Final (quick) take

The fall of Grantland isn't good news for those who prize slow bakes over hot takes. "Embrace debate" has pulled sports journalism through the mud. Simmons is a unique personality in ways both good and insufferable, and losing him would challenge any site owners. Fortunately for enterprises, they don't have to go that route.