ESPN's Bill Simmons Says Grantland Is 'Ready to Make Big Swings'

6:51 PM PST 03/11/2014 by Debbie Emery
ESPN

With a new unit announced at ESPN on Monday that will unite Grantland, FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films under one umbrella, Bill Simmons told THR that the next two years are key for the growth of his site.

It has been a week of big announcements for ESPN, with the official launch date of Nate Silver's site FiveThirtyEight revealed as March 17 and the news that Marie Donoghue will lead a newly created unit called Exit 31, which The Hollywood Reporter exclusively reported Monday.

All of this is good news for Grantland editor in chief Bill Simmons, who sat down with THR at SXSW in Austin to reveal his game plan for the sports and pop culture site that launched in 2011.

"This is a big year for us; we will hit our three-year anniversary in June, and we like where we are at the moment," he tells THR. "The goal is to take six or seven big things on top of where we are and make some huge swings that will help us.

"The Steve Nash series we're doing is really good for us as there's nothing like it right now on the Internet. We're capturing someone at the tail end of their [NBA] career, and it's gotten a huge response.

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"The key for us the next two years is visibility. We did a really good job of building our own brand away from the ESPN corporate office, and now we have to build on that," explains Simmons, who is based in Los Angeles, about 3,000 miles west of ESPN's hub in Bristol, Conn.

Geography is just one of the many ways that Grantland was unchartered territory for the sports network, which included not having ESPN in the title, centering a new offshoot around a single name in Simmons -- who initially had built his brand on being the "Boston Sports Guy" -- and venturing into pop culture for the first time.

During his panel with Silver on Saturday at South by Southwest, Simmons announced that "Grantland is launching a new video podcast network. Nate is building a studio in New York City, and that’s going to give Grantland writers there somewhere to go to film something cool. We are looking into TV stuff, like an Adult Swim-type thing," he revealed.

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"I think we have really figured out the multimedia thing, having two podcast networks and merging YouTube," the site's founder, who also co-hosts ESPN's NBA Countdown show, tells THR. "The next step for us is to use the rest of the company to help us -- maybe by getting a couple of our writers on TV," he says, adding, "I don't think [a Grantland] TV show is out of the question; there's a couple of ideas that we've been talking about.

"Connor Schell [vp ESPN Films] and I are doing a baseball movie [Million Dollar Arm, which is set for release in May] with Disney and Jon Hamm, so that's going to help us. It's little baby steps and all about trying to get people to know about the site.

"Right now we're in that same spot that 30 for 30 was their first year -- the ratings were fine, people liked it -- but now five years later everyone knows what it is and has an opinion on it. It hits a whole range of demographics, it is re-watchable and it affects people's lives. It gets me motivated with Grantland because I know we're not there yet."

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To get to that level of recognition, they have to make the most of all the parts of ESPN, says Simmons, instead of thinking of Grantland as a lone component. "It is a huge company, and it has got lots of different channels, and we just have to figure out how to use it better. We didn't do that the first few years. We were just on our own little island trying to crank out good content and get good writers."

A key factor in aiding that next giant leap forward is joining the Exit 31 group under Donoghue, which also includes FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films and Original Content. "I report to her, Nate reports to her, and Connor reports to her -- I think from a collaborative standpoint, that is going to be really important for us, and there are some bigger things that we are going to be able to do with our groups working together," says Simmons. "I’ve known Marie for a long time, and she is probably the most powerful woman at ESPN -- she is just really well liked, respected and smart and has a great business strategy side; that's how she went up the ranks at ESPN."

As for Silver's highly anticipated data-driven journalism site that has moved to ESPN after a surprise exit from The New York Times eight months ago, Simmons says his friend has the benefit of learning from Grantland's mistakes. "They are using what we did with our site, both good and bad, to learn from. I think we've really helped them," he says. 

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In fact, it was Simmons' father who nudged Silver into locking in the deal with ESPN over the other media entities he was considering. "Right when Nate was deciding what to do, he happened to be in San Antonio, and he was going to the [NBA Finals] game, and my dad got two tickets from the NBA, so we hooked him up with the passes and things like that, it's when he kind of realized that it would be really cool to work for ESPN," he says. A courtside seat and a pep talk from a proud Boston parent later, and Silver was won over.

"Maybe if he had done it on his own he could have made more money, but he has the best chance to win with us," says Simmons, adding that while Grantland and FiveThirtyEight are very different, they complement each other. "I am sure it helped Nate that someone else had done it; it is like a road map, and he will face similar prejudices like, 'Why are they basing a site around one person?' and the assumption that he just writes about politics, but he does all this other stuff." Silver revealed that his new site will in fact have "five verticals" -- politics, economics, sports, science and lifestyle.

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"For me, it's great to hear that you can't do something. It motivates me and makes me want to work harder. I loved it when I heard people say that Grantland wasn’t going to work," says Simmons with a wry smile. "The reason Nate and I have a lot of success is that we always try to stay a step ahead. When you lose that, you start coasting. I get a jolt about coming out with an angle that I hadn't read about yet, then people thinking 'I should have thought of that!' "

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