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Did Jim Delany Start ESPN's "Roll" Into Failure?

How the Commish's ballsiest moment may have started ESPN on a precipitous decline....

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

(First things first -- I haven't been around writing for awhile. Career/kid stuff, and frankly too many emails from Graham comparing Jim Harbaugh to girls he's dated....but the OTE powers-that-be left me with writer emeritus privileges here, so I decided to stop by and write)

As you may have heard, ESPN shuttered Grantland today, putting a lot of talented writers, editors, and other personnel out of work, at least temporarily. In a less noticed move, they also announced that they were letting go of 2 ESPNChicago writers -- Scott Powers and Jon Greenberg -- at the end of the year.

Now, maybe you didn't like Grantland. And maybe its demise was inevitable given Bill Simmons' departure.  I happened to think Grantland was the best thing on ESPN's website, and that its talented writers and staff far outkicked the "talent" ESPN was trotting out on its network shows each and every day. (Bayless and Stephen A. -- may you burn for eternity in your own HOTTAKES.)  They weren't tremendously strong or deep on college sports coverage, but Matt Hinton and Holly Anderson were both excellent writers who added a lot to the general conversation around college football.

But I'm not here to bemoan the loss of Grantland (although I will miss it), or worry for its excellent writers and staff (they're talented people that will be quickly scooped up).....but rather to wonder more generally about something that Ted Glover and I started discussing on Twitter immediately in the wake of Grantland's closing being announced.  And that question is the larger decline of ESPN in terms of quality, and the role the Big Ten may have played in starting it....

You see, back on April 30, 2004, Jim Delany met with ESPN executives led by Mark Shapiro, ESPN's Executive VP of programming and production (and the "genius" who . The B1G had 3 years left on its media deal with Goliath ESPN/ABC, but Delany wanted to get the ball rolling on negotiations. I'll let Teddy Greenstein take it from here:

An amiable session in which the Big Ten and ESPN cleaned up "housekeeping matters" — schedules and announcers — took a nasty turn at the one-hour mark. That's when talk turned to a contract extension, a negotiating session that went nowhere. Fast.

"The shortest one I ever had," Delany told the Tribune. "He lowballed us and said: 'Take it or leave it. If you don't take our offer, you are rolling the dice.' I said: 'Consider them rolled.' "

Delany had warned ESPN officials that without a significant rights-fee increase, he would try to launch a new channel that would pose competition both for TV viewers and the Big Ten's inventory of games: the Big Ten Network.

"He threw his weight around," Shapiro said in a telephone interview, "and said, 'I'm going to get my big (rights-fee) increase and start my own network.' Had ESPN stepped up and paid BCS-type dollars, I think we could have prevented the network. In retrospect, that might have been the right thing to do. Jim is making a nice penny on that."

Said Delany: "If Mark had presented a fair offer, we would have signed it. And there would not be a Big Ten Network."

CONSIDER THEM ROLLED. God damn I love our commissioner.

Anyways, since Delany called ESPN's bluff, let's look at what has happened:

  • BTN arrived in 2006.
  • ESPN loses Sunday Night Football to NBC starting in 2006. It instead gets Monday Night Football....but does not gain ability to "flex" schedule, meaning it gets stuck with a bunch of clunker games.
  • NHL Network launched in the US in 2007.
  • MLB Network launched in 2008.
  • ESPN tries to launch Longhorn Network in 2011. It is a huge failure, creates massive conflict of interest issues, and results in Mizzou and Texas A&M jumping to the SEC, and assorted realignment insanity from there (BUTTGERS!)
  • Pac12 Network launches in 2012.
  • Fox Sports 1 launches in 2013, gets some Big12 Football coverage.
  • ESPN launches SEC Network in 2014, further exasperating ESPN's conflict of issues problems, despite supposed financial success.
  • Rumors have it that ESPN might delay the launch of the ACC Network, which threatens another round of realignment shuffling as the ACC potentially implodes due to it falling financially farther behind.
  • ESPN gets hammered over its coverage of NFL domestic violence issues and soft-glove handling of Roger Goodell in 2014.
  • Grantland launches in 2011, is killed by 2015.
  • Just in terms of Bill Simmons:  ESPN kills an interview Simmons lands with Barack Obama in 2008, gets into a tiff with Simmons over content on his podcast in 2008, suspends Simmons in 2009 for criticizing a Boston radio station, suspends Simmons in 2013 for criticizing ESPN's First Take, and suspends Simmons again in 2014 for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a "liar" over his handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case, before firing him in May 2015 after Simmons appeared on Dan Patrick's radio show.
  • ESPN launches First Take in 2007. Amazingly, they decide to INCREASE Skip Bayless's role in 2011. THEN they decide to add Stephen A. Smith, because when you can double the morons on your show...why not?
  • ESPN redesigns its website in April 2015. The damn thing is completely useless and unreadable.
  • Just last week, ESPN announced layoffs to 300 production staff.
Now, maybe ESPN's problem is that it got too big, too fast. Maybe it's suffering is a symptom of the eventual death of cable at the ends of live-internet streaming and a market that is going to demand channels/programming a la carte. Maybe it's just poorly managed, and is jettisoning quality talent for cost savings while retaining gasbags like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith and Chris Berman because they mistakenly think we actually enjoy that garbage. Maybe it's all of those things.....

Or maybe, just maybe, when Jim Delany rolled those dice? He actually slung a couple rocks that hit ESPN/Goliath smack in the face, and started it all tumbling down.....