Bill Simmons gave an interview to Ben Mullin and Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal that opened with a very Bill Simmons one-liner analogy — saying the state of the podcast business is bad because companies like Buzzfeed scaled back on them is like saying NBA business is bad because the Hawks were bad — and also included some interesting metrics about The Ringer’s business that we haven’t seen before. These metrics explain why he doesn’t write nearly as much as he used to when much of his audience discovered him at ESPN.
Whereas The Ringer averages about 2.1 unique viewers per month according to ComScore numbers (for context, Barstool is at 3.4 million, Deadspin at 11.7M, SI at 14.1M, SBN at 17.0M and Bleacher Report at 35.3M according to a chart in the story), WSJ noted that The Ringer network of 28 pods averaged over 35 million podcast downloads per month in the fourth quarter of 2018, and cited “people familiar with the matter” as saying they made over $15M in ad sales on the medium last year. He said, as he has said with slightly different language before, that the media group is profitable.
If you look at replies to his tweets or Facebook entries, his audience constantly wonders why he doesn’t write very often anymore (he filed his NBA trade value column in December, and otherwise publishes a couple times a year), as this is how millions of people discovered him.
However, if you look at the metrics in the WSJ piece, it’s a no-brainer. You’ve surely read about how making money on free, ad-supported written content is only becoming more challenging. Distribution has been tougher to come by over the last several years. For example, in February and March of 2015, Grantland had 5-6 million users per month, according to ComScore. Yes, they had the firehose of ESPN’s front page, but this was also a time when Facebook could be counted on from a traffic perspective, before they essentially turned into a pumpkin.
Provided you have podcasts that people listen to, the ad rates per user dwarf what you can get in display advertising on a web site. Couple that with Ringer’s documentary business selling to a bourgeoning ecosystem of premium networks like HBO (which, I don’t think this specific number was ever previously reported, but WSJ says they own a 10% stake in The Ringer, and they have a first-look deal on films) and potentially streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, all of whom are starved for premium differentiable content.
It’s therefore a no-brainer that Simmons’ time is disproportionately devoted to these pursuits as opposed to writing himself. Follow the money.