ESPN just announced that it’s shutting down Grantland, the sports and pop culture themed site launched by Bill Simmons back in 2011. When ESPN did not renew Simmons’ contract (estimated at $3 million) he resigned in May just four months before it was set to expire. While many speculated Grantland owed most of its traffic to the founder’s personal touch, data over the past year suggests otherwise.
1. Bill Simmons Stepped Out
Simmons fans warned that removing the site’s figurehead completely would effectively kill the property. While Grantland traffic did dip slightly after May, the decrease was not significant. In fact, its main competitor, Gawker property Deadspin, experienced a similar slump. It would appear that Simmons’ departure had almost no direct impact on web traffic.
2. Long Form Content Under-delivered
Grantland’s emphasis on long form content has been a consistent differentiating characteristic. Although well crafted long-form content can keep audiences loyal and engaged, the demanding editorial strategy produced underwhelming results in Grantland’s case. Site visitors spent an average of 23 seconds less than Deadspin’s 3:22 visit duration, viewing only 2.13 pages per visit vs. Deadspin’s 2.4. Sports Illustrated beats both on engagement, though still trails behind Deadspin in traffic.
3. Lack of digital-first content
True to its Gawker DNA, Deadspin just couldn’t resist a good dick pic. A quick review of the site’s popular pages reveals several items that would be tagged as NSFW content. The most recent LeBron James unfortunate adjustment caught on live TV in June corresponded to a massive traffic spike in traffic – pushing the content item to the top 2 spot on the site’s most popular pages and more than doubling the site’s average daily visitors.
For years, Sports Illustrated has catered to sports fans’ appetite without compromising integrity. Swimsuit themed content dominates the top folders list on si.com with a 23% traffic share – competing successfully with Deadspin’s NSFW fetish.
Ultimately, Grantland did not make business sense. The above contributed to ESPN’s decision to kill the property last Friday. To compete and thrive in a digital marketplace, publishers must strike the right balance between easy-to-share (and sometime sensational) headlines, and in-depth analysis.
As the data shows, Grantland failed to deliver on traffic and engagement – both of which impacted the bottom line.