So, Grantland is dead. ESPN played a Halloween trick on us all by sticking a knife in the heart of the home to the majority of the organization’s best quality work. Grantland, if you didn’t have the pleasure, was a sports and pop culture website founded a few years ago and led by former ESPN writer Bill Simmons. It featured unique, long-form journalism and story telling from a deep and varied stable of quality writers. Simmons himself recently joked during one of his newly launched independent podcasts that Grantland had 18 of the 23 best writers employed by ESPN. From where I’m sitting, it was less a joke than a statement of fact.
I’ve been a sports fan for most of my life, and as such, ESPN attracted me with its 24 hour coverage during a time when the alternative was some box scores in a few pages of the local paper. It was Sportscenter, in particular The Big Show days of co-anchors Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, that really hooked me. But as they got more successful, things fell apart between them and the network, and everyone eventually moved on. Sportscenter and ESPN carried on, but a void was created and, as I’ve seen over the ensuing years, a pattern of trouble between the network and it’s top-level talent seems to have emerged.
Grantland brought me back into the fold. Every day, there were multiple quality pieces of writing across a wide range of subjects thrown out into the world. For a sports fan like me, hungry for analysis deeper than the basic stereotypical columns and studio shows that proliferated the sports media landscape, it was a godsend. Writers like NBA aficionado Zach Lowe, the great NFL duo of Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays, pop culture superstar Wesley Morris and, of course, Simmons himself, with his lengthy, footnote laden and often simultaneously insightful and funny pieces, made Grantland a home for the discerning and knowledgeable sports and entertainment fan.
And then there were the podcasts. I’d often spend hours with the Grantland staff, soaking up Lowe’s NBA chats on his Lowe Post (I’d forever listen to Lowe and former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy chat about the weather and what they had for breakfast) Barnwell and Mays’ three-times-a-week Grantland NFL Podcast, the spectacularly irregular and hilariously funny NBA After Dark podcast with Chris Ryan, Juliet Litman and Andrew Sharp, former NBA player Jalen Rose and David Jacoby always giving the people what they want on their Pop The Trunk podcast, and Simmons’ BS Report were must-listen material in my house, among many others. That’s all gone now, thanks to some of the most bone-headed corporate decision making I’ve seen. And believe me, I’ve been privy to some spectacularly poor choices.
To be fair, it’s not totally gone. It appears Jalen and Jacoby’s show will continue on ESPN radio. Simmons has moved on with his own independent podcasts, an unnamed and vague “future editorial project” for which he hired a quartet of former Grantlanders, including Litman and Ryan, as well as an HBO show slated to start next spring. And ESPN has said they plan to shift the sportswriters like Lowe, Barnwell and baseball writer Jonah Keri to other platforms under their umbrella. So help me, if they stick those guys behind their Insider paywall, I’ll fucking flip! I love those guys and I’ll do whatever to support them but I’ll be damned if I’m giving so much as a penny to an organization that disrespects both its audience and top talent like ESPN has here.
There are several lessons here, I think. But before I start, let me say I have absolutely no direct knowledge of the financials, the terms of anyone’s contracts or any specifics of the internal power struggles outside of the few tidbits that have come from former Grantlanders. These are my opinions and observations based on what I’ve seen both in watching what was a beloved website crumble and what I’ve seen personally in similar situations. By similar, I mean isolated products under a somewhat disinterested corporate parent who are, themselves, beholden to an uber-corporate giant. The scale of my experiences is smaller than Grantland/ESPN/Disney, but the dynamic is eerily similar. Here goes:
1. ESPN’s management is disrespectful and unprofessional.
Bill Simmons found out he was fired on Twitter. The vast majority of the Grantland staff found out who his replacement was also on twitter. The axe on Grantland fell via press release, blindsiding nearly everyone involved. This is Management Professionalism 101 stuff. ESPN has a duty to the people it employees and to leave them twisting in the wind, discovering details crucial to their futures over social media rather than being informed by their employers is disgraceful. And when it happens multiple times over a period of months, well, can it be any clearer they just don’t give a shit about you? It shows how little they value the people under their umbrella. They’re assets, chess pieces to be shuffled around on the whims of the suits. It’s more important to the company that their employees be kept as much in the dark as possible so as to prevent their ability to prepare if things go badly south. The suits are protecting themselves by screwing people who should be trusted allies. Working for those kinds of people is simply not worth it. Unless you enjoy having to watch your back 24/7 lest somebody jab a knife in there when you’re not looking.
How an organization treats people matters, even if you’re not the one currently getting shafted. It’s a “there but for the grace of god” thing. If they’re willing to treat someone in their employ this way, they’re also willing to treat you the same, if circumstances dictate. If you find yourself working for someone who fucks other employees over, even if you’ve gotten nothing but gold-star service, get out. Maybe you’ll be lucky and never have that target on your back. But most likely, it’s only a matter of time and elements outside of your control before they get around to you. Do yourself a favor and don’t give them that chance.
2. Contracts matter. Always have an exit plan.
I know it seems a bit counter-intuitive to prepare to leave a job before you’ve even got it, but in my experience, failure to do so adequately is one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make. That non-compete matters more than you realize. Trust me, you really don’t want to find out how much more when it’s too late to do anything about it. Much like the Grantland writers left behind in ESPN’s employ, you can find your legal binding to a place outlast both why you were hired and the people who hired you. I cringed when I saw that statement from ESPN about repurposing those former Grantland staffers. Been there, done that. Never, ever again.
I do not envy them. There’s a small chance this shift will turn out well for them and an overwhelming one that it turns out poorly. I don’t wish the level of bitterness and misery I’ve seen in similar situations on my worst enemy, let alone some of my favorite writers. ESPN apparently has a policy that none of its talent can appear on outside platforms. Can’t guest on a Fox Sports podcast, for instance. This is asinine. A policy that exists for one reason, they want your success and profile to be entirely dependent upon their platforms. It’s a means of controlling your career (and minimizing your ultimate value). It saves them money at your expense and gets you to keep yourself in check.
Grantland was different. As such, writers like Lowe and Barnwell have built broader positive reputations than would otherwise have been possible from within ESPN-proper. I can almost guarantee that wherever “The Mothership”, as ESPN likes to call itself, sticks them, it’ll minimize the broader appeal and presence they’ve created. Without knowing the terms of their respective contracts with the network, my (completely unsolicited) advice to them would be to move on. Hopefully, they have the contractual ability to do so. You may never have more positive leverage to land a gig you actually want than right now. You almost certainly won’t if you allow yourself to be thrown in as an add-on to other network properties. This looks like a “use it or lose it” choice. Not a simple one, by any means, but one that comes with huge regrets if you fail to pursue it.
3. Grantland is gone. And it’s never coming back.
Every so often, if you’re lucky, you’ll fall into a situation where the right people and the right circumstances will converge with where you are at the time to create a truly unique and rewarding work experience. You can’t predict when one will appear, nor when it all gets taken away, often very unexpectedly on both counts. Once you’ve been through that, it leaves an indelible mark, becoming somewhat mythologized in your own memories, and of those you were in it with.
But when it’s gone, it’s gone. You can chase all you like; seeking out similar-looking gigs, joining up with some of the original cast for new things; but you won’t get what you had back. You may well find other good people and places and situations. But they’ll all be different. Sorta like a first love, you recall it more fondly, at least in part, because you didn’t have the history or experience to understand it as it was happening. Now you do, and as a consequence, you won’t be blazing as many new paths so much as backtracking over more roads already traveled.
Whatever roads the former Grantlanders travel, it behooves them to not chase that Grantland feeling. Simmons new things won’t get you there, writing for ESPN’s other things won’t either. And neither will going to a different platform at another company. Nor founding your own independent thing. All of those options have positive potential outcomes, and could each produce something good, rewarding. They also each carry risks, possible downsides that can’t be ignored. But if you’re looking to replicate the unique thing you just experienced, even subconciously, whatever you do is always going to seem lacking in something. Let yesterday go and let the next thing be what it will.
4. Deal with corporations on a risk/reward basis. Don’t be the one taking all the risks while they get all the rewards.
What seems pretty clear from Grantland’s history is that ESPN both didn’t understand what it had and either didn’t bother or didn’t know how to properly market it. All this talk about the financials relating to the site is really more an indictment of ESPN than Grantland itself. After all, what good is this huge corporate sales infrastructure that’s so demanding of profits if it doesn’t adequately service or exploit quality content at its disposal?
As a fan and outside observer, I was often surprised how little actual promotion ESPN gave Grantland. I would’ve thought, given the audience Grantland garnered, that would be something ESPN would want to push. But here’s the crux of the situation for modern day creatives. Sure, Grantland could have blown up, made the folks working there some nice coin and turned a good profit at the end of the day for The Mothership. And probably not even covered the bill for the rights to a third rate college football bowl game on December 18.
ESPN, and so many of our major media corporations, are in another stratosphere financially. They need billions of dollars every year just to pay the rights fees for the games they broadcast. A comfortable profit for an offshoot like Grantland is a rounding error. So they allow it to exist, until they don’t, but will almost never give it much more than the bare minimum of resources. In their view (the mega-money view) there’s no upside of consequence.
So consider, you’re working for something you believe in, for a company who neither believes in you nor adequately supports what you’re doing. You have three choices; quit, stay and ride it out until they pull the plug, or bust your ass even harder to make up for the resources you’re not being given. I’ve done all three at one time or another and, frankly, the first option is the best one. Riding it out is just sad and depressing; like watching a loved one waste away from some debilitating disease. Doubling down on your effort is self defeating. You’re putting in a ton of work and resources of your own all so the company who withheld those needed resources can reap all the rewards if you’re successful. Maybe, you’ll get some recompense in future considerations. Likely, not much though, if at all. One thing is for sure, when it comes time to cut the check, they’ll find some reason to downplay your success.
So if that’s where you find yourself, move on. Find somewhere you can choose option three and actually be appreciated and rewarded for the results. It’s not going to be where you are, a place that has just demonstrated a tendency to do the exact opposite. Happiness isn’t found in security. Hell, in this kind of business, security doesn’t exist anyway. Working the corporate thing has to be a quid pro quo. It advances your career while advancing their interests. When it turns to advancing their interests at your expense, and it inevitably will, it’s time to get off the treadmill.
5. What to do, what to do…
Given that several Grantland staffers have already simply up and left into new jobs elsewhere, some even to Simmons unnamed whatever, I’ll presume the contracts of those remaining don’t have any kind of onerous, restrictive clauses. Unless, of course, they’ve signed something new very recently. Again, I have no idea, just a presumption. But assuming that, I’d quit before I got shuffled off to some other thing without my consent. Then I’d try to hitch on with Simmons. I know I said don’t chase Grantland, but that’s not why I’d go that way. Simmons is smart, he has connections, he has an upcoming HBO show to raise his profile. And most of all, he’s motivated. Unless I’m way off base, he’s likely pissed off and will channel that with no little consideration given to shoving his future success straight up ESPN’s ass. No, you can never get back what you’ve lost. But you sure can burn the fuckers who took it from you.
But most of all, I’d better understand what I didn’t the first couple times I went through shit like that. You’re not simply an employee of the publication you help produce. Nor simply one of the corporation that owns that publication. You’re an individual. This is your career at stake, not theirs, and act in whatever you feel is in the service of that end. I would better understand that the company, despite how they may behave, doesn’t make the talent. The talent makes the company. ESPN has lost sight of that.
R.I.P. Grantland. You will be missed.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron