No one knew what quite to expect in June 2011 when ESPN introduced Grantland.com, a sports and pop culture website helmed by Bill Simmons, ESPN's longtime "Sports Guy" columnist. In the year and a half since, the site has found a footing, mixing long-form feature writing with both witty blog posts, criticism on pop culture and deep analysis on major sports such as football and basketball.
As Grantland Grows Up, It Looks to New York Magazine as a Model
While Mr. Simmons writes frequently for the site, he has filled out the roster with high-profile contributors such as author Chuck Klosterman and Pulitzer Prize critic Wesley Morris, as well as up-and-comers poached from the likes of The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. In September it introduced a YouTube channel as well as the first in a series of "30 for 30 Shorts," a spin-off of the hit "30 for 30" documentary series that Mr. Simmons helped create for ESPN.
As Grantland's second birthday nears the horizon, we spoke with David Cho, the site's publisher, and Eric Johnson, exec VP-multimedia sales at ESPN, about what they've found so far and where they hope to bring the property in 2013. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
Advertising Age: Grantland has now been around for a year and a half. What have you learned and what's your focus for this year?
David Cho: Over that time, we've really seen what works and what doesn't work, what the audience responds to and also what we feel like the site is becoming and what the brand is becoming. A big part of that is that we wanted to prove long-form content still had a place online, that everything didn't have to be short bite-size nuggets. And I think we've done that. We've also figured out the strongest writers, and strongest topics. We feel like the editorial piece is pretty much there.
Now we're really focusing on the product and how the content is delivered. It's about repackaging and presenting the editorial in a more clear and efficient way. So the next four to eight months are about creating better products to house those pieces and focus on a few pillars that will be the next things we really build out to be standalone products.
Ad Age: Like?
Mr. Cho: Like The Triangle and Hollywood Prospectus blogs. And I think for us, it's about how do we make those into larger things. We're fans of the New York magazine model, where they have the blogs Vulture, The Cut, Daily Intel. That's sort of what we want to do: create destination pages that are stronger and feel like products of their own. We felt like we are putting out some good stuff that's getting lost because we were relying on the home page.
Ad Age: How do you fix that?
Mr. Cho: We haven't figured out the exact execution. But we're not launching side sites. We'll just be creating bigger destinations within Grantland. Obviously if we build those internal brands, the Grantland brand only gets stronger.
Ad Age:According to Comscore, traffic continues to be flat around 2 million monthly visitors. Do you care about that?
Mr. Cho: We care about it because Eric cares about it, but for us it's about putting out the best product we can. We always want to get bigger, but to have a site our size 18 months in is pretty good.
And the amount of people that are coming directly to Grantland is up a lot -- over the last six months the number of instances of people coming directly to Grantland.com has doubled from the same period last year. ESPN does give us a lot of traffic, but the people actively seeking us out has increased. And on the social side, shares from our audience are increasing.
Eric Johnson: I think the site has enough girth and a very attractive demographic that ends up lending well to the sales proposition. I don't think Grantland is designed to be a major volume play. It's a sophisticated site with a very unique blend of sports and pop culture and that's ultimately what we bring to advertisers.
Ad Age: The site has always been pretty clean, without heavy use of standard ad units. What's been the ad sales philosophy for Grantland?
Mr. Johnson: We started with presenting sponsors, such as Subway, that have a customized integration into the site. Now we're looking at selling flighted sponsorships around events, so you might see us sell one around the Super Bowl or the NBA Draft. We don't have the desire to just sell display rotational ads. They don't fill a need and it's more profitable this way.
And in some ways, Grantland is like a Hollywood studio that creates different pieces of content, like some of the podcasts, that we can use outside of Grantland but carry the brand with them. One of the deals we have done recently is having Blue Moon sponsor "30 for 30 Shorts."
Ad Age: You've already had one site redesign. Any more planned?
Mr. Cho: Right. The first one was mid-January 2012. And then since then it's been the same design. We'll probably retool in a major way over the next few months.
Ad Age: Can you hint at what the goal of it will be?
Mr. Cho: It'll be about increasing discoverability and promoting pillars that are the next wave of products we'll put out there. Also, Bill, myself, Eric and his team are really focused on new and innovative ad executions. We want to be really good at everything, and that doesn't just included writing.
At this point, someone mentions the wallpaper ad that ESPN.com featured on its home page the day of the BCS title game. The ad let readers pick who would win the game and changed color based on which team had the most votes.
Ad Age:So you want to bring ads like that to Grantland?
Mr. Johnson: Not that treatment exactly, but it's directionally indicative.
Mr. Cho: We want to do new things that benefit not just marketers but audiences as well. The reason I like that treatment is because as a product, it interested me.
Ad Age: I've been surprised that the Grantland YouTube channel doesn't have a sponsor. Are you content with not having a sponsor there?
Mr. Johnson: YouTube takes the lead for sales. You'd have to ask them. We've had communication with Google on the YouTube front and if a sponsor had interest, we'd partner together. We want to have more sponsorships, but we want to make sure they're meaningful ones.
Ad Age: You are also publishing a quarterly print magazine of Grantland articles. What's the goal?
Mr. Cho: There have been four issues and the fifth is shipping in the next few weeks. When we think about the goal, we want it to be something we're proud of and something that doesn't lose money. It's both of these things. The idea is to make lot of different stuff that maybe most people aren't doing, and to do it in a smart way. We're not expecting to make a lot of money on the books but we're happy with the product and it's another wrinkle in what differentiates us from other sites.
Ad Age: So is Grantland itself financially self-sufficient? Does it break even?
Mr. Cho: It depends on how you do the accounting.
Here, an ESPN rep cut in to say the company doesn't discuss financials.
Mr.Cho: It's safe to say we're very happy where we are.