For the past two weeks, our editorial team keeps coming back to one topic: What the hell happened to Grantland, one of the truly great sites on the Internet?
A lot of ink has already been spilled on that question, so I won’t rehash it (although, if you have to pick just one post-mortem, I recommend reading this Ben Thompson post). However, in addition to all of the eulogies, a couple of content marketing nerds have moved the discussion a bit, wondering whether a brand should buy the site. As a content marketing nerd and huge Grantland fan, I can’t help but offer my take.
Why it makes sense for a brand to buy Grantland
Grantland was the premier sports and pop culture site on the Internet. Its writers were unrivaled in talent, and it had a fiercely loyal, high-brow audience. Yes, its 7 million unique visitors per month paled in comparison to Business Insider or Upworthy, but those unique visitors weren’t just clicking and leaving; they were staying and reading 5,000-word articles, often on a daily basis. As Malcolm Gladwell put it on Bill Simmons’s podcast last week, “There’s now a thirty-minute hole in my day I have to fill [without Grantland].” I believe a lot of readers feel the same.
In terms of attention time, I’d speculate that Grantland trumped quite a few of its clickbait-focused digital media rivals. (Based purely on conversations with folks from Grantland and the media industry at large.)
ESPN shut down Grantland largely because the Worldwide Leader in Sports failed to monetize it properly. Usually, readers would only see one banner and some Outbrain-style modules. But that monetization problem wouldn’t be an issue for a brand; the value the site could deliver to the brand would be the business model.
As Joe Pulizzi wrote on Halloween while making the case for why Nike or Under Armour should buy Grantland:
Let’s break down the numbers a bit. In 2014, according to Nike’s fiscal reports, Nike spent a little over $3 billion (with a b) on what they call demand creation (marketing and advertising…but mostly advertising). Even one thirty-second ad during a premium television sports event runs in the hundreds of thousands, up to five million for events like the Super Bowl.
Regardless, Nike spends about $8 million dollars per day trying to get people to buy their stuff. This generally means interrupting people with advertising while they are engaging in content they actually want to read or view (ala Grantland).
But really what the Nikes and Under Armours want is a loyal audience that will buy from them continually over time. That is why Nike is spending so much on their data to build programs like Nike Our Year and Under Armour is buying apps like Endomondo. These companies want a direct connection to their customers, and use the data to build more meaningful relationships with their audience.
Well argued, Joe. By most estimates, Grantland’s 40-employee staff would cost around $10 million a year to run, give or take a few million. When you consider the hundreds of millions of hours of attention you’d get in exchange, it’s a no-brainer.
Why it doesn’t make sense for Nike or Under Armour to buy Grantland
Where I differ with Pulizzi is over who should buy Grantland. It doesn’t make sense for a major sports apparel company to buy Grantland, because there’d be too much conflict of interest. Their ties to the athletes they endorse would ruin the integrity of the new, hypothetical Grantland. Nike is not going to risk losing Anthony Davis, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant over the editorial integrity of the content. And without that editorial integrity, the publication would never be able to attract the writers and retain the audience that made Grantland great.
That’s another important point, by the way. As my content marketing soul sister Jay Acunzo wrote on his blog, any brand that bought Grantland would have to offer total editorial independence to attract the right talent. Said company wouldn’t be buying the talent, just a strong editorial brand and a lot of readers with a 30-minute hole in their day who have nothing smart to say at happy hour.1
This would be very difficult but not impossible to pull off. If the right brand got a couple of star editors, gave them a ridiculous amount of financial support, and got the hell out of the way, the other creative dominos would fall. In a resource-strapped media world, money talks.
10 brands that should buy Grantland
There are a lot of companies ready to target a high-brow audience that enjoys longform sports and pop culture analysis. But we can still rule out a fair amount of brands. After all, Totino’s isn’t buying Grantland.
So let’s get to it: Who should buy Grantland then?
HBO (disqualified): This would be perfect, but, tragically, it will never happen. HBO has Bill Simmons—Grantland’s ousted founder—who could easily rebuild his baby, and it would be a great marketing vehicle for Simmons’s new HBO show launching this spring. But let’s be real: ESPN’s executives would never sell Grantland to HBO. They’d sell it to PornHub before HBO. They’d fill it with nothing but half-naked photos of Chris Berman before they sold it to HBO. They’d set Bristol on fire before they sold it to HBO. So let’s move on.
10. BMW: A high-end automotive brand like BMW could play very well in Grantland’s space. Resources? Check. No conflict of interest? Check. Right audience? Check.
9. Sony: Before shuttering, Grantland was making significant strides with its multimedia content, putting out entertaining web series and popular podcasts. That could create some great—dare I say it—synergy with Sony’s PS4 platform.
8. Microsoft: See Sony. Replace PS4 with Xbox One.
7. American Express: American Express has long been a content marketing pioneer with OPEN Forum, and it has recently started embracing longform content. Amex has also done tons of sports and pop culture events marketing over the years. Grantland would provide the fancy audience that a fancy credit card brand needs.
(Full disclosure: Amex is a Contently client.)
6. Johnnie Walker: Or any large, higher-end booze brand. Pour one over the rocks and sit down in your favorite chair with a 13,000-word Zach Lowe breakdown of the Spurs’ motion offense.
5. Dos Equis: The most interesting site in the world.2
4. Amazon: Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post two years ago, seemingly because he saw the coming convergence of technology and media. If Bezos wants to start stacking the deck for Amazon’s platforms, Grantland would be a great second move.
3. Red Bull: Red Bull has been a prolific producer of extreme sports and music content, which has propelled the brand forward in incredible ways. Grantland would be a natural extension of the existing content operation and tap into a new audience. Plus, Red Bull is one of the few brands with the credibility to attract top talent.
2. Facebook: Facebook is in the process of sucking the entire media world into its platform through Facebook Instant Articles. This strategy appears to be working! But I have a feeling that Facebook will eventually hedge its bets and buy a few media brands of its own. Grantland would be a great initial prestige play, and it would only cost as much as hiring a handful of top developers. With the help of the News Feed algorithm, traffic would never be an issue.
(Full disclosure: Facebook is a Contently client.)
1. Contently: Two years ago, Hamish McKenzie, then at Pando, speculated what would happen if Contently bought ProPublica to fund investigative journalism. We didn’t do that, but we did spin off our own investigative journalism non-profit, and even won the ASJA Award for Investigative Journalism.
So, I’m going to take a page out of Hamish’s playbook. Contently founders, Gavin3: What if we bought Grantland? IT WOULD BE AWESOME. Please. There’s a hole in my life, and if no one’s going to fill it, we should.