There’s been a fair amount of critical buzz for Bill Simmons’ The Ringer, but five months after its launch, is it attracting the traffic it needs to be viable long-term? That’s the question Max Willens asks in this Digiday piece, and the answer appears to be “maybe not.”
By SimilarWeb data, The Ringer attracted 7.5 million people in October on desktop and mobile, down from 10 million in its first month of June. Meanwhile, ComScore (which uses surveys rather than direct measurements for Medium-hosted sites like The Ringer) had them with a peak of just over 1 million visitors in July and August, and declining to 600,000 in September. If the SimilarWeb data is accurate, it’s not necessarily terrible overall for The Ringer (ComScore, albeit with a different methodology, had Grantland’s peak at 7.2 million visitors in May 2015, and that was with a lot of ESPN.com promotion), but it’s not trending in a promising direction. If the ComScore data is accurate, that’s much more concerning given the numbers of staff The Ringer employs.
A Ringer spokesperson told Digiday “Strategically, we’re right where we want to be just five months after launching,” and their newness and lack of an overarching site like ESPN to promote them is certainly worth considering. Poor numbers aren’t necessarily an indictment of their content, either; J.A. Adande, an ESPN columnist and the director of the sports journalism program at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University told Digiday “Any issues the Ringer might be having are not a reflection of the quality of work being done there. They are a reflection of the value of the ESPN real estate in the sports landscape.”
The Ringer has also found some success marketing itself to big brands, including deals with Miller Lite and Jaguar, and they’re reportedly getting close to 5 million podcast downloads a month (and substantial revenue from sponsorships for those) despite some inconsistencies with their lineup. They also have significant backing from HBO. Those are good signs. However, a rise in traffic will eventually be needed to make this site sustainable, and a key question there is “Wither Simmons?”
Much of Grantland’s success wasn’t specifically about Simmons, as a lot of what made the site work was the talented and unconventional other voices he found, but his regular (often weekly) columns were significant traffic drivers for that site. By contrast, he’s filed only three Ringer columns since that site started. Yes, Simmons has made his mark as much more than just a writer these days, and yes, he’s been busy with podcasts, his recently-cancelled HBO show, and presumably some behind-the-scenes HBO initiatives. There’s a lot on his plate. More Simmons columns could be very important for The Ringer, though; he still has a built-in audience the site doesn’t at this point (consider Twitter, where Simmons has 5.27 million followers to The Ringer’s 272,000), and more writing from him could get new readers in the door, and perhaps lead them to look around and find other stuff on the site they like.
There doesn’t appear to be any immediate crisis for The Ringer. It’s just five months in, and they have substantial HBO backing and some major sponsorship deals. Their podcast numbers are also promising. However, the traffic numbers are going to need to rise for this to work over the long run, and more involvement from Simmons might be an essential part of making that happened. We’ll see if that comes to fruition or not, but it will be well worth keeping an eye on The Ringer in the coming months. It’s an ambitious venture, and one that’s produced some quality writing so far, but the traffic doesn’t seem to yet be where it’s going to need to be to keep the website at its current staffing level. We’ll see if that changes as time goes on.