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Arts and Entertainment

How ESPN's Grantland Ended Up Getting Shut Down

HBO's Bill Simmons speaks onstage during 'Ahead of the Curve - The Future of Sports Journalism' in San Francisco. Simmons founded Grantland in 2011. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
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Grantland, ESPN's sports and pop culture outlet founded by Bill Simmons in 2011, has been shut down.In a statement issued Friday morning, ESPN announced that publication of Grantland had been suspended, "effective immediately."

"After careful consideration," the statement continued, "we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise."

Despite the sudden shutdown, all writers who remained at Grantland will be reshuffled into the rest of ESPN's coverage. "ESPN seems to have concluded that some of Grantland's long articles could appear on and that it did not have much need for the site's cultural coverage," wrote the New York Times. A senior source at ESPN told CNN that the media empire was, "getting out of the pop culture business."

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Upon its launch in 2011, the Los Angeles-based arm of the ESPN empire distinguished itself from the mothership with top-notch and thoughtful longform writing. As editor-in-chief, Simmons recruited a stable of talented writers that made Grantland a go-to site, including Molly Lambert, Chuck Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell, Wesley Morris, and Andy Greenwald, to name a few. However, it all began to unravel over the past year, with Simmons being let go from ESPN in May—an acrimonious split between two parties that had always been contentious with each other.

Grantland was tossed into turmoil during the five months between Simmons' departure and the eventual shutdown of the site. At the end of the May, ESPN reporter Chris Connelly (which many might remember from his MTV days) was appointed interim editor-in-chief of the site by the ESPN bigwigs, further alienating the Grantland staff from The Worldwide Leader in Sports. As James Andrew Miller, author of the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun, writes in Vanity Fair, Connelly's newsier approach as editor-in-chief "made for few shared sensibilities between the new boss and the largely millennial staff who love feature writing and analysis."

There was much speculation over where Simmons, who was a valuable but potentially volatile free agent for any sports outlet, would land. He ultimately wound up signing a deal with HBO in July. It was a perfect fit: HBO did not have any close ties with any of the sports leagues—especially the NFL, whose commissioner Simmons was highly critical of—and their status as a "premium" outlet granted Simmons the editorial and creative freedom he desired.

Free from the reigns of ESPN, Simmons would also begin to take shots at his former bosses. On the second episode of the Bill Simmons Podcast (a revival of his highly popular B.S. Report podcast with ESPN), he would trash ESPN's soft coverage of the NFL, and on the followup episode with Wesley Morris he would contend that Grantland was never given the resources or attention to ever fully sustain the site and make it profitable.

"Is Bill temperamental and needy? Yes, but so what?" a filmmaker who worked with both parties told Miller. "He's probably the single most creative force that's been at that company for a long time."

Soon came the defections. Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and pop culture writer Wesley Morris joined the New York Times as critic-at-large in September. Less than a month later, Grantland staffers Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman, Mallory Rubin, and Chris Ryan all left Grantland to join Simmons at HBO, and editorial director Dan Fierman shortly thereafter joined MTV News. Likely sensing that Grantland was taking on water, culture writer Rembert Browne also bolted for New York Magazine.

It became more and more obvious from the outside that the site's future was in doubt, with so much staff turnover. Today's news felt like an inevitability.

The decision to shut down Grantland comes barely over a week after ESPN announced that it would be laying off 300 employees.

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