What's the Fate of ESPN Verticals Grantland and FiveThirtyEight.com?

Silver Merida Split - H 2015
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Silver Merida Split - H 2015

Amid layoffs and high-profile exits, many wonder whether the network's star-based stand-alones may be the next to go in a streamlining effort.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

With the hiring of Washington Post editor Kevin Merida to lead The Undefeated, its long-delayed site that will focus on the intersection of sports and race, ESPN has quieted some uncertainty (for now) about its strategy of building digital verticals around stars and subjects. The company's newest planned vertical was thrown into turmoil last June when founding editor Jason Whitlock was removed after alienating some staffers. (Whitlock is now back at Fox Sports, where he'll write commentary for a new digital venue called J. School, host a podcast and also get a program on cable net Fox Sports 1.)

In making the Merida announcement on Oct. 19, Marie Donoghue, ESPN executive vp global strategy, who also oversees Grantland and Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, noted that the hire "represents a key step in the evolution" of the vertical.

ESPN's digital hubs have generated outsize attention relative to their P&Ls. (Wall Street has given ESPN a $51 billion valuation, while annual revenue exceeds $10 billion.) And a stream of public digs from Grantland founder Bill Simmons, who was jettisoned in May and since has landed a rich deal at HBO, has been a source of frustration for ESPN executives. It certainly has not helped that several Grantland staffers have exited — several following Simmons to HBO — under interim editor Chris Connelly. (Wesley Morris is now at The New York Times, and Rembert Browne left for New York magazine.)

In a statement, the network said: "ESPN is proud of the unprecedented support we gave to Bill and the Grantland team during his time with us. The company afforded Bill a very unique opportunity. ESPN has moved forward with confidence and no regrets."

As ESPN faces layoffs — it will trim about 300 of its 8,000 employees in a streamlining effort announced Oct. 21 — some believe the verticals could be on the chopping block. ESPN continues to express unequivocal support, noting that traffic to Grantland and FiveThirtyEight recently has grown. FiveThirtyEight notched 5.4 million uniques in September, according to comScore, a year-over-year jump of 153 percent. Still, with the 2016 presidential primaries generating early interest — thanks mostly to Donald TrumpFiveThirtyEight has yet to generate the buzz it enjoyed during the 2012 election (which led to interest from multiple suitors including MSNBC). ESPN insiders counter that polling data, the site's stock-in-trade, is largely irrelevant this early in the race. 

Meanwhile Simmons said recently that Grantland's financials were "probably right around even." But none of that may matter in the end. ESPN president John Skipper has said on more than one occasion that the sites are expected to boost the brand, not profits.

"I guarantee you Nate Silver [has] never heard from me about whether any content he does is valuable to advertisers," said Skipper at a conference last year. "His only guidance from me is please create the best possible site you can create that has the most fascinating, interesting articles. One of the biggest things we face is that we are big, and big companies are not lovable. You've got to find other things — 30 for 30, Grantland, FiveThirtyEight — that people love and feel passionately about."