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ESPN’s Skipper Explains Why He Shut Down Grantland

Jason Barrett

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Say what you will about ESPN president John Skipper, but the guy knows how to come clean. Ever since ESPN announced the immediate shutdown of its revered Internet writing showcase Grantland on October 30, there has been, apart from a terse initial statement, little clarification from the network’s Bristol headquarters about why it happened, when it happened, and what it all means. Now that has changed.

“I made the decision,” Skipper says flatly. “There was no influence from [ESPN corporate parent] Disney on this. And I made sure that I divorced my feelings about Bill [Simmons] from this decision because I would never let that affect the people who are there.”

Skipper‘s decision to end Grantland was informed by the uncertainty surrounding the site‘s personnel and the resources and effort needed to keep the site thriving absent its star founder.

Throughout the 36 years of its existence, ESPN has weathered many a dramatic event—comings and goings of stars, programs, executives, and properties—but the intensity surrounding Grantland’s demise caught many at the network by surprise. Skipper admits to underestimating the effect Simmons’s exit would have, conceding it affected Grantland personnel more than he or perhaps anyone else on his management team anticipated.

“We lacked a full understanding of the bonding nature between Bill and those guys,” Skipper says now. But along with management failing to appreciate fully the bond between Simmons and his staff, it also misunderstood the Grantland culture—enough to imagine that turning the site over to Chris Connelly, brought in as a temporary Simmons replacement, would sit well with the staff.

“Chris was only going to be interim,” Skipper says. “It wasn’t his desire to be a long-term manager there. He made that clear to us. Chris is nothing but a good guy. This has been hard on him.”

In the past several months, two ESPN executives referred to the Grantland offices in Los Angeles as a media Jonestown, populated by a cult far more devoted to their leader than to just any old web site. Clearly, Connelly was marching into a difficult situation. When Skipper flew to L.A. in mid October, he made sure to give Connelly the bad news face-to-face.

“I had to fly out to Burbank on other business but felt that Chris and I are good enough friends that I wanted to talk to him in person. Chris had become an advocate for continuing it when he knew that there was a decision-making process happening. The decision was made the week before we announced it.”

Evidently, it was never an easy one. “In the weighing of a decision like this,“ Skipper says, “you look at the resources, the time, the energy necessary to do this well and balance that with the things you get from it. This was never a financial matter for us. The benefits were having a halo brand and being Bill Simmons related.”

The site was highly regarded inside and outside the media business and brought considerable prestige to the ESPN brand. Grantland, loftily named after erudite sportswriter Henry Grantland Rice, was considered a solid, sometimes-bold step into the world of sports-related journalism, becoming one of the most successful blends ever of sports with pop culture and current events and a paradise for serious writers who wanted to stretch and even experiment.

According to Skipper, there was a scenario by which Grantland would have been saved, and that was when Grantland editor Sean Fennessey was offered the top job.

“We did make Sean Fennessey an offer to become editor-in-chief,” Skipper says. “You ask, ‘If Sean had said yes, then would we have still made the same decision about the site,’ and the answer to that has to be ‘no.’ We would have kept it going. There was no way we would have made that job offer to him if we weren’t going to keep going.”

Fennessey declined to comment for this story, however, few, if any would doubt his loyalty to, and affection for, the site. But, his decision to follow his mentor Simmons off to new worlds wasn’t shocking. It was also clear to many that his decision to turn down the top job at Grantland reflected his uncertainty about ESPN’s commitment to the site. Grantland insiders were convinced Fennessey wondered if he would really have the resources needed to run the site and keep its reputation solid. He had also become aware, sources say, of rumors that ESPN wanted to cut Grantland back to just a sports site and eliminate its pop culture content.

In the weeks ahead, media insiders will watch to see how many of the former Grantland staff will find other writing duties at ESPN, migrate to HBO to re-unite with Simmons, or find work elsewhere. But the hard cold fact for now can be simply if crudely stated: Grantland is dead. Everyone needs to move forward. The noble experiment is over.

“I loved the site,” Skipper insists. “It pained me to make the decision. It was not without difficulty.”

To read the full story visit Vanity Fair where it was originally published

Sports TV News

Scott Hanson Clarifies NFL RedZone Missteps During Raiders/Seahawks

Hanson believed in the moment that CBS was airing the overtime period to a national audience. But due to NFL broadcasting rules, the game was only available on select stations.

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NFL RedZone host Scott Hanson ruffled feathers for many football fans Sunday when he told viewers to switch from the channel to their local CBS affiliates to see the conclusion of the Las Vegas Raiders and Seattle Seahawks game.

Unfortunately, for both viewers and Hanson, the game was only being shown in a small portion of the country, with the rest of the nation’s CBS affiliates already airing 60 Minutes. The game was also available to NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers.

Hanson took to Twitter Sunday evening to explain what happened on the air and to apologize for the miscalculation.

Hanson believed in the moment that CBS was airing the overtime period to a national audience. But due to NFL broadcasting rules, the game was only available to stations in the Las Vegas, Fresno, Sacramento, Reno, Eugene, Portland, Boise, Seattle, and Spokane markets on the west coast. Additionally, the game was available in Chicago, Tampa, Atlanta, and Charlotte.

He apologized for the mistake and said he would have more details at a later date.

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Sports TV News

ESPN Creates ACC/SEC Challenge

The series will begin for the 2023-2024 season, launching with 28 games played between the two sports.

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ESPN, in conjunction with the ACC and SEC, is slated to announce the creation of the ACC/SEC Challenge for men’s and women’s basketball.

The series will begin for the 2023-2024 season, launching with 28 games played between the two sports. That number will grow to 30 contests when the SEC expands for the 2025-2026 season.

Every game in the challenge will be aired on an ESPN platform, with each side hosting the same amount of home games.

The creation of the event comes on the heels of the Big Ten’s new media rights deal with FOX, NBC, and CBS, ending a nearly four-decade relationship with ESPN. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge began in 1999, with the SEC/Big 12 Challenging beginning in 2013. Both events will cease to exist following this season.

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Sports TV News

FOX Sports Sees Record-Setting Ratings Weekend

The World Cup matchup between the U.S. and England on Black Friday and Michigan/Ohio State on Saturday saw tens of millions of viewers tuning in.

Jordan Bondurant

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FOX Sports has been home to a number of record-setting games in terms of viewership over the last several days.

In addition to FOX Sports setting a new mark for a Thanksgiving and regular season NFL audience, the World Cup matchup between the U.S. and England on Black Friday and Michigan/Ohio State on Saturday saw tens of millions of viewers tuning in.

The network reported the U.S./England match in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup averaged 15.377 million. It was the most-watched English-language soccer game in the U.S. ever, topping the 1994 World Cup final between Italy and Brazil.

Viewership of the match was up 11% compared to the second group stage contest for the U.S. team in 2014 against Portugal. The audience peaked at 19.646 million from 3:30-3:45 p.m.

FOX Sports also reported the Michigan/Ohio State game on Saturday drew in 17 million, which made it the most-watched regular season college game on the network ever. That figure was also the highest of any regular season contest since 2011. That game also saw the audience peak at 19.6 million.

Viewership for the game was up 3% compared to last year.

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