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BULLETIN: Oct. 30, 2015 — A loss for sports journalism, and with it, the bloom is off the rose of the World Wide Leader

Today, Grantland was shuttered.

Grantland was a venture by ESPN into serious long-form written journalism, something which has been very much lacking in today’s ready-made conflict-based and statistically-heavy sports punditry.

There is a problem, however, with ESPN and its corporate overlords at The Disney Company. They are losing money. And lots of it.

It’s estimated that some 3.2 million subscribers have left ESPN in recent months. It’s not known how many of them are amongst the growing number of people called “cable cutters,” who have been watching their video programming through devices other than TVs, or who are disillusioned with having to pay extraordinary monthly cable bills.

What’s happened is that ESPN, a company that has spent billions of dollars on rights fees to things like the NFL, has also spent enormous amounts of money — mainly on things not in its core competency. It has produced game shows, published a glossy magazine, and has opened (and closed) a chain of sports bars in major U.S. cities. ESPN spent money on an IndyCar track, ran a handful of races on it, then paved it over for a parking lot..

But it’s also spent money keeping its talent away from Fox when News Corporation opened its checkbooks last year in the months leading to the launch of Fox Sports 1 and 2. It’s also spent money on boutique websites like ESPNW, Grantland, and an upcoming venture called The Undefeated, which is targeted at African-American readers.

But while The Undefeated has been staggering towards its launch, ESPN cut down Grantland. Grantland was supposed to have been part of a tradition of enterprise writing made famous by Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports, and The Sporting News, where you could get a good read every week on anything from a retired athlete to the great outdoors.

As print journalism has declined the last 30 years, other publications have tried to incorporate this kind of writing. Inside Sports lasted until 1998, when it was merged with SPORT, which itself disappeared in 2000. The National Sports Daily had a glorious year and a half in 1990 and 1991, featuring an enterprise story in its centerfold every day.

SportsJones was one of the first Internet-based media companies that specialized in good long-form enterprise sportswriting. It was purchased by ESPN in 2000, but it wasn’t given its own presence, and its content was scattered throughout the ESPN website.

Then, Grantland came along in 2011. It was run by ESPN writer Bill Simmons, whose views on sports and popular culture drew a devoted following.

But earlier this year, a Simmons story criticizing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell got the writer fired. And in a dizzying series of moves and countermoves, Simmons was able to draw away enough of his former colleagues to render Grantland a shadow of its former self.

In truth, it’s the same with the network. While a lot of money has been spent on rights fees for sports on ESPN, a series of troubling moves has gotten me wondering about the economics as a whole. The network exited its coverage of the National Hot Rod Association a year early. It did the same with coverage of golf events sanctioned by the Royal & Ancient.

ESPN has also seen a lot of valuable properties — long-time properties — move elsewhere, such as NASCAR and the FIFA World Cup.

At the same time, however, what had been its core competency — SportsCenter — has died on the vine the last few months. SportsCenter used to be so strong in the field of news that many late local news shows didn’t bother with a sports report anymore. But the usual display of highlights over a one- to two-hour period every evening has been replaced by interview segments, the showing of YouTube videos not necessarily with sports themes, and sponsored talk segments.

It’s too bad that a very good group of journalists isn’t likely to be around to report on what could be the biggest story of all: the downfall of ESPN itself.


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