“If somebody didn’t succeed, I don’t think that says anything about the business,” Mr. Simmons said in an interview late last year. “You could look at basketball and say, ’Oh, the [Atlanta] Hawks stink…what’s going on with basketball?’ Nobody would ever do that.”
Mr. Simmons, who launched the company three years ago after a 14-year run as one of ESPN’s most provocative commentators, has bet big on digital audio at The Ringer, with a network of 28 podcasts that garner about 35 million downloads a month.
He is embracing his role as a contrarian in the media industry, where ad-supported business models are out of favor and podcasting is viewed as a low priority at the biggest players—a side hustle, not a core business.
The Big Leagues
The Ringer, which was founded in 2016, trails larger and more established sports-media sites like Bleacher Report in web traffic. It is betting big on the relatively small but fast-growing podcast business.
Sources: Comscore (visitors); the company (podcast downloads)
The Ringer’s podcast offerings include “Binge Mode,” a serialized breakdown of cultural touchstones like Harry Potter and “Game of Thrones”; dedicated shows for professional football and basketball; and the culinary-focused “House of Carbs.” Mr. Simmons has his own show that features star athletes, celebrities and his longtime friends.
The Ringer’s website, which features a mix of in-depth reporting and quick-hit analysis, covers a similar menu of topics. The company also puts on live events and has a growing video production operation, Ringer Films, with ambitions of producing and selling sports and entertainment documentaries.
The Los Angeles-based company, whose head count will reach 100 this year, doesn’t disclose detailed financials, like most startups. Its podcast ad sales exceeded $15 million in 2018, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Simmons says the company is profitable.
The Ringer hasn’t raised money from venture-capital investors and says little about its ownership structure. HBO, now a unit of AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia, acquired a 10% stake in the company as part of an overall deal with Mr. Simmons announced in 2015, according to people familiar with the matter.
While The Ringer’s web audience is growing, it is much smaller than those of sports-media competitors like Bleacher Report and SB Nation. Mr. Simmons notes that sites like Turner-owned Bleacher Report have been around for more than a decade. “We’re in year three. I’m happy to be compared to all of those sites, but we’ve barely just started,” he said.
Mr. Simmons’s early career included gigs at Boston newspapers and a blogging slot at AOL Digital Cities. The Brookline, Mass., native with a master’s degree in print journalism doesn’t hide his love for Boston sports teams (which irritates his detractors and endears him to fellow New Englanders). He became a sports-media celebrity during his ESPN stint, founding the Grantland website and cocreating the “30-for-30” documentary series, before an acrimonious exit in 2015.
HBO and Mr. Simmons initially signed a three-year deal worth $7 million annually, people familiar with the matter said. It included a provision for a weekly talk show, “Any Given Wednesday,” which never gained serious traction. HBO canceled Mr. Simmons’s show after four months in response to disappointing ratings, but signed him to another multiyear deal.
The new deal could exceed $2 million annually and gives HBO first-look rights to content from Mr. Simmons, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Marketers are beginning to spend more of their ad budgets on podcasts, but that amount is still relatively small when compared to money spent on other forms of advertising.
*Estimate †Includes podcasting ‡Excludes digital
Sources: eMarketer (digitial, TV, print and radio); Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers (podcast)
“Andre the Giant,” a biopic of the professional wrestler produced by Mr. Simmons, aired on HBO and drew 7.3 million viewers across the company’s various platforms. The Ringer recently announced plans to partner with HBO to make “Showbiz Kids,” a documentary on children in the entertainment business.
“There’s a real hunger for content right now,” Mr. Simmons said. “The scale of the company that we’re building is bigger than what we thought it was three or four years ago.”
Mr. Simmons says that his stint at ESPN showed him that the podcasting business had untapped potential. At ESPN, Mr. Simmons said, podcasts were a “nonpriority,” in part because the company is “in the business of selling giant bulk things” and podcasts are a “boutique” business.
“A lot has changed since Bill left. We have a thriving podcast business which has been built over many years,” an ESPN spokesperson said.
He set out to make podcasts a focus of The Ringer. Podcast advertising has grown quickly—it increased 86% from 2016 to 2017—but it still represents less than 1% of the overall U.S. digital ad market. Still, some companies have retrenched. BuzzFeed declined to comment on its podcasting cuts.
“We believe in the podcast medium more than ever,” said Jason Cox, chief operating officer of Panoply Media. “We saw a bigger opportunity, and one that we were better prepared to succeed at, in the technology space.”
The Ringer’s podcasts, like most, feature a lot of direct-response ads, those that call the user to take an action like punching in a discount code on a website. ZipRecruiter, an online job search firm, and underwear retailer MeUndies are among the sponsors of Mr. Simmons’ podcast. The company also has drawn brand advertisers, including Callaway and Captain Morgan.
Advertisers pay between $25 to $50 for every 1,000 people who hear each ad on The Ringer’s podcasts, according to people familiar with the matter. The Ringer keeps at least two-thirds of the money, with the rest going to Midroll, the audio-advertising vendor that sells much of The Ringer’s ad space, the people said.
Mr. Simmons has avoided serialized true-crime shows, in part because advertisers are wary of that terrain.
“The subjects are dicey,” he said. “It’s like, ’this girl vanished from her farm. What happened?’ Presented by Sprite!”
As for his past dust-ups with ESPN, Mr. Simmons said he’s “pro-ESPN right now,” in part because he’s bullish on the company’s entry into direct-to-consumer streaming with its ESPN+ subscription service. “At least they’re starting to think about what’s next. And I think that [streaming] app is going to be their whole business in like seven years,” he said.
The Ringer will depend on revenue growth to finance its own expansion: Mr. Simmons doesn’t intend to raise outside capital.
“If you raise money, you have all these people in your life that you have to deal with that have certain expectations, that might not have the same vision you have,” Mr. Simmons said.
Write to Benjamin Mullin at Benjamin.Mullin@wsj.com and Joe Flint at email@example.com