Pivoting to…podcasts? That’s the general thesis of the Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) “For Bill Simmons’s The Ringer, Podcasting Is the Main Event” (by Benjamin Mullin and Joe Flint), which discusses in detail how important podcasting has become to The Ringer. The site obviously still does a fair bit of written content, and video content matters to them as well (especially for projects done in partnership with networks and/or tech companies), but podcasting is turning into their bread and butter.
As Ryan Glasspiegel notes at The Big Lead, that’s also true for Ringer founder Simmons. Simmons’ author feed at the site is almost exclusively podcasts now (including his own podcast and his guest appearances on other Ringer podcasts), except for a NBA Trade Value column in December and a few other columns throughout the year. And Simmons’ shift in focus for his personal work’s also seen in their general emphasis on podcasts; The Ringer now has 28 podcasts in its network and has made some splashy additions there in the past months, adding entries from Ryen Russillo and Vince Carter and Kent Bazemore. As the WSJ piece discusses, a key reason for that focus on podcasts comes from the difference in advertising revenue.
It’s no secret to anyone that display advertising rates for written content have plummeted, which has been a factor in major recent media layoffs at the likes of Verizon Media (Yahoo/Huffington Post/AOL) and Buzzfeed (but not the only one; at Buzzfeed in particular, the issue wasn’t profitability in general, but rather profits that didn’t reach investors’ targets). It’s also no secret that podcasts have done well for many sports media companies. But it’s interesting to hear the specifics on just how well The Ringer is doing with advertising rates for its podcasts.
As per Mullin and Flint, The Ringer charges between $25 and $50 for every 1,000 people who hear an ad on their podcasts. With the site averaging over 35 million podcast downloads per month in the fourth quarter of 2018, that’s a lot of money. The WSJ piece says The Ringer made more than $15 million on podcast ad sales in 2018. With both that attractive cost per mille and the significant scale they’re reaching, it makes sense that podcasting is their focus.
What’s also interesting about that piece is how it has Simmons saying that further expansion for the site will come from their own revenue growth, with him not targeting further outside investment at this point. In order to grow that way, they’ll need to have significant profit, and so this will be an interesting way to keep track of how profitable they actually are. Simmons said the site was profitable back in 2017, and he reiterates that here, and that’s notable for coverage of where The Ringer is at this point in time; it sounds like they’re not making big splashes to try and grow audience and draw further outside investment, but rather trying to build on what they have using their existing revenues. So if they do make further notable hires or expansions, that will suggest their revenue is doing well indeed.
Something else that arises from this piece is that this podcast-focused media model may not be something that’s easily copied elsewhere, though. Simmons pokes fun at how Buzzfeed went to podcasts and then went away from them, saying bashing podcasts because of that is like saying the NBA’s struggling overall because the Atlanta Hawks are bad, but the bigger takeaway there may be just why podcasts are working so well for The Ringer.
For one thing, The Ringer started with one of the most popular and long-established sports podcasts out there in Simmons’ show, which helped get a lot of listeners in the door. They’ve also grown their network with numerous shows centered around people familiar to Simmons’ readers and listeners, and Simmons has done a good job of bringing other Ringer personalities onto his show to promote their own work. Plus, The Ringer had significant financial backing to start with, and an association with HBO (the WSJ piece notes that HBO owns 10 percent of the company) that helped add further credibility. So the takeaway isn’t that every media company should pivot to podcasts, or that podcasts are going to be successful for everyone. But they certainly appear to be working out for Simmons and The Ringer.