With Cost Cuts Looming, Are ESPN's Affinity Sites Vulnerable?

Ryan Glasspiegel

Two years after ESPN and Jason Whitlock announced an African-American themed culture website along the lines of Grantland, Whitlock’s out, and it remains stuck in development hell. Imagine, for a second, being a writer there, having the existence of the website deferred in quarterly intervals, with 0-2 bylines 1-2 years after you were hired. With cost cuts on the horizon, would you have any faith that it was ever going to happen? And what does the future hold for Grantland and FiveThirtyEight?

“We remain committed to the continued growth and development of our sites,” an ESPN spokesman said in a statement. “In recent months, Grantland has earned record traffic and FiveThirtyEight is enjoying substantial increases year over year as we approach the significant time period of election season. For The Undefeated, we are in the process of determining a permanent editor-in-chief.”

Last month, Deadspin reported that ESPN wanted one of its writers, Howard Bryant, to “reboot” the project, which finally got a title last year: The Undefeated.

Earlier this month, [ESPN President John] Skipper flew to London for Wimbledon. On July 7, he met with ESPN The Magazine columnist and author Howard Bryant, who was covering the event. Skipper asked Bryant to help lead the relaunch. Skipper and Bryant are still early in talks, so for now, the role is being described as “editor-at-large.” Bryant still has his magazine column. Carter is still the head of a dead website, but there’s no word on what this means for the interim EIC down the road, or for the rest of the staff that Whitlock hired.

Shortly after, Bryant tweeted:

Three weeks later and ESPN has announced nothing. Bryant, meanwhile, has changed his avatar to a chess pawn. According to several people at ESPN, discussions took a turn after Bryant’s tweet, which he was told was “premature,” and this much is clear:

a) ESPN’s interested in Bryant writing for and working with the site, but it does not want him to “reboot” the project, at least not in the sense that he’d be the face of the website or have hiring authority, which may have been different than what he’d initially heard.

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Talk to writers and editors past and present at ESPN’s affinity sites, and they’ll tell you that the idea of guys like Bill Simmons, Whitlock, and Nate Silver running websites terrified various levels of management because if the sites were successful, what did it mean for them? Consequently, if these sites were going to shun editorial meddling, then they would not often receive the full force of Bristol’s promotion in the form of front-and-center ESPN.com treatment — and hits on SportsCenter and ESPN Radio — as happens with major Outside the Lines and ESPN the Magazine stories.

There’s been a power struggle going on internally at ESPN for years now over affinity sites. Two important names have always championed them — John Walsh and Skipper, who both made their bones in print. Both were integral in having Bill Simmons start Grantland, and Skipper spearheaded The Undefeated and got a nudge from Simmons (who had Nate Silver on his podcast a couple times) to start FiveThirtyEight. Walsh retired earlier this year. Between cord cutting as a threat to revenue and the billion dollar NBA deal triggering rising costs, Skipper could now be in a vulnerable position for a variety of reasons.

An ESPN spokesman tells us that talks with Bryant have not been irrevocably broken off and they are still “discussing a role.”

[RELATED: Why Was the New York Times the Bearer of Bad News on Bill Simmons and Jason Whitlock?]

From Bryant’s perspective, being asked to obtain buy-in from prominent African-Americans at ESPN who appear regularly on TV or the radio, carried an implied quid pro quo. This was the responsibility of a leader, was it not? And wouldn’t this then yield editorial and administrative input, and a pay bump? Whatever the official title wound or winds up being, ESPN has concluded it wants an experienced editor in charge at The Undefeated — and out of the writer-as-the-face business.

ESPN has expressly told us that all three of their affinity sites are safe, and that they won’t get folded into each other or ESPN.com. A spokesman emphasized that Grantland’s two best traffic months came post-Simmons this past May (Simmons was ousted May 8th) and June, which, per comScore, had 7.2 million and 6.9 million unique users, respectively, which represented about 50% increases year-over-year. FiveThirtyEight had 5.2 million and 4.6 million uniques in May and June, increases of 136% and 27% (last June was the World Cup).

(With regards to the Grantland traffic, it came in months that featured parts of the NFL Draft, as well as the NBA Playoffs with a basketball-heavy staff that Simmons put together.)

It’s not as if these sites were designed to maximize profits, and most engaged readers and writers are rooting for them to succeed as something akin to sponsored art, but is there a limit to how much they can lose? This argument is consistently brought up by management who have disdain for these operations. To be sure, there are writers at these sites — especially ones that do a great job covering core sports — that ESPN plans to fight hard to keep. However, would it be profoundly surprising if there’s attrition, especially in the culture sections, and writers and editors in those departments part ways without being replaced?

In any event, there are a lot of moving parts here and the next six weeks should provide a lot more clarity about what will happen with ESPN’s affinity sites, and elsewhere across the Mothership.