The One Good Reason Why Bill Simmons Should Stick With A Big Company Rather Than Start His Own
Bill Simmons' three-week suspension from ESPN is over. His face is back on Grantland, specifically the site's YouTube page, where he and Jalen Rose have started previewing the NBA season team-by-team. He looks happy, because he's talking about basketball, and Simmons loves basketball. But is he happy?
According to "people close to" him, via this report in the New York Times, no, he's not happy. He's furious, and "has been talking a lot about whether ESPN is still the right place for him." We've been discussing this idea for a few weeks -- would Simmons leave ESPN, which has been good to him (like, around $5 million a year good to him) for the most part, for another company? Would he leave ESPN, which has allowed him to shield his writers from chasing traffic, for his own company?
Nicholas Carlson of Business Insider, who is tapped into the media world, says that Simmons would be "nuts" to leave ESPN to start his own media company. He cites several factors, most notably that people who start media companies end up running themselves into the ground, waking up in pools of their own blood, gaining a ton of weight, ruining their social lives and other terrible personal things.
This is a legitimate issue -- but one that is easy for someone with a big ego to ignore. Other big media personalities have made the jump to digital properties made in their image (Ezra Klein and Glenn Greenwald are two examples), and it's probably easy for these guys to convince themselves that creating their company won't destroy them. They're different. They're gonna be okay.
Whatever. The biggest issue, for Simmons as well as his loyal community of readers and followers (of which I am a member), is that leaving a big company and striking out on his own would probably lead to the end of Grantland as we know it. From BI:
Simmons has designed his site, Grantland.com, around the idea that writers shouldn't have to worry about traffic. The result is that Grantland's traffic is tiny. It reached under 5 million people in August, according to ComScore. For comparison SB Nation had 13 million visitors that month. Deadspin had 25 million.
ESPN is perfectly happy with Simmon's tiny traffic because ESPN.com is already a traffic monster, and Simmons's personal brand makes the rest of ESPN good. ESPN is in traffic optimization mode, not traffic growth mode.
If Simmons were out on his own, he would have to be in traffic growth mode. His so-called "halo effect" wouldn't be nearly so valuable. He'd have to drive his staff to produce things lots and lots people want to read. Does he really want to do that?
Grantland is able to produce the kind of well-thought-out, unique, interesting and just plain good content that we like to read because the site stands on the shoulders of a giant. By the same token, Deadspin can publish articles like "look at this fat dog" and get thousands of hits in an hour, because of its connection to the Gawker network that guarantees traffic (disclaimer: I realize I am discounting the many fine articles Deadspin writes, but still, c'mon with this fat dog bullshit).
If Simmons suddenly had to worry about satisfying advertisers -- not to mention investors -- you'd probably see fewer long-form articles on why the Cavaliers are title-contenders with LeBron (duh?) and more lists, or slideshows, or GIFs, because people fucking love lists and slideshows and GIFs.
This is an issue I first broached when Sports On Earth was unfairly downsized. Unfortunately, good writing -- even great writing, even the best (sports) writing on the Internet -- isn't making money right now. It won't until people actively turn away from click-bait and gossip and spend their time reading quality articles. Whatever people might say, it's not a SportsGrid problem, it's an Internet problem.
It might be hard to believe, but ESPN is actually doing the Internet (well, at least the portion of the Internet that likes reading good sports writing) a favor by keeping Grantland afloat, regardless of its unique hits. It would be much more difficult for Grantland to sustain its quality as a standalone entity than with an ESPN portal and the money to keep the lights on, despite the low raw numbers. We need sites like Grantland, and for the most part, good websites with good writing only exist because there are people with money standing behind them who doesn't care about making a profit.
That being said, I still think Simmons' best move is to Turner and TNT. Just don't go off on your own, Bill. The Internet is dark and full of terrors, like a theoretical article from Zach Lowe titled "10 Reasons Why This GIF Of Derrick Rose Changed My ENTIRE LIFE."
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