In Praise Of Bill Simmons

Below is an excerpt from a Friday discussion moderated by PBS’s Mark Glaser on Nate Silver leaving the NYT to set up shop at ESPN (which sponsors Grantland):

I want to add a personal note about Grantland and Bill Simmons. They remain role models for me and the Dish. If we had been able to find a home like ESPN that was prepared to really give us resources and freedom and had a viable business model, we’d have been thrilled a few years ago. We ran the post from Big Lead not as in any way a criticism of Bill and Grantland, but simply as a way to explore and debate further the economics of online media and individual sites (sorry, but I cannot write the words “personal brand” without throwing up a little in my mouth). Anyway, I wanted to make that completely clear. I revere Bill as much as I revere Nate.

A reader is on the same page:

The Dish was the first news website I ever paid for. I would immediately pay for a subscription to Grantland that was in remotely the same cost range (then again, if the Dish charged $100 a year I would pay for that too). Grantland has become the first thing I open in the morning (although I usually see some of the Dish on my phone before getting to work), and I consume almost all of their written material (I haven’t ventured into video or podcast land because I have to do my actual job). Their writing is consistently thought provoking.

I’m fortunate enough not to have to worry about dropping a few hundred on stuff like this; most people are. What are your thoughts on this type of corporate sponsorship?  (They routinely disclose their ties to ESPN/Disney when they come up in the course of a given story.)

At this point we don’t need it, but at some point, if we really wanted to expand faster than our revenue allows us, sponsorship is something we never ruled out. We’re just trying to build a robust, reader-supported site as a first step. It’s much harder, but we’re also trying to forge a model for other smaller sites so we can expand the range of truly independent ventures online. If you want to help us with that, [tinypass_offer text=”please subscribe”]. I keep meeting regular readers who haven’t yet been prodded to pay by the meter (partly because they access the Dish in many different devices); and they always say they intend to. Well, stop intending to and, if that’s you, please take a moment now, get your credit card out and take two minutes to spend $2 a month or $20 a year to help shift the balance in online media away from pageview mania responsive to advertizers, toward more quality content, responsive to readers. [tinypass_offer text=”Click here”].

Another reader:

A grain of salt on the grain of salt offered by the Big Lead on Grantland’s reliance on ESPN for viability.  Bill Simmons and you are, by far, my two favorite people to read online.  I like sports, politics and pop culture, and Simmons (who is in his early 40s, like me) covers the sports and pop culture while you take care of the politics and the leftover pop culture/Internet memes that I’d otherwise miss.  Frankly, I don’t have much time do much else online – if I have time to look at only four websites in a day, which is often, it’s you, Grantland, Facebook and Twitter (not necessarily in that order).

The idea behind Grantland came about when Simmons was nearing the end of his contract with ESPN a few years ago, and told them that he wanted to start his own website where quality writers could have the freedom to write what they wanted. He wanted to get away from ESPN because, among other things, he chafed often at the rules at ESPN when he wrote on their website (e.g. no curse words, nothing overtly sexual, no criticism of any sportscasters at ESPN or other networks – this one really bothered him). He wanted to have the freedom to write about whatever he wanted (and tell edgier jokes) without worrying about upsetting the suits at ESPN.  John Skipper, to his credit, convinced Simmons that he could do the same thing with an affiliated site, which is how they came up with the idea of Grantland.  Other than a small box in the middle/bottom of the ESPN home page, you wouldn’t know of the affiliation, and good luck finding “ESPN” or “Disney” on the Grantland site.

Though he mostly writes about topics you couldn’t care less about, trust me that he is an incredibly talented and funny writer.  He built his own brand before ever being hired by ESPN (and before “blogging” was a thing), and I can attest to the fact that his loyal readers (and there are hundreds of thousands if not millions) would have followed him anywhere, just like yours did.

Would he have the (possibly) bloated staff he has now had he gone out on his own, or been able to attract all of the writers currently employed by Grantland?  Possibly not, but I am 100% confident (and I’m sure Simmons is, too) that he could have built a standalone profitable website similar to what Grantland is today without any backing from ESPN/Disney.  And the goodwill and additional cross-promotion that ESPN is able to do with Simmons under their employ helps drive a lot of other business for them. For example, he was on their NBA pre-game show this year, and I made every effort to watch it when he was on (even DVRing it at times), which is something I would never do in a million years if Simmons weren’t on the show.

The point being, the Big Lead (along with every other sports blogging site on the planet) has a lot of jealousy towards Simmons because he was among the first, and still by far the best, at looking at sports in a new and modern way, and they are always looking to knock him off his perch a bit.

Agreed. That’s my view as well. We air all sorts of opinions – and we knock many of them down here as well. I’m glad, with your help, we knocked Big Lead’s argument down. Here’s hoping Grantland continues to thrive. I just wish we’d had an ESPN in our past willing to make that leap by empowering us.