“The best thing about making content in 2016 - if you have good content, people are going to find it no matter who you are and where you are.”
Bill Simmons’s notorious tweet from May was either hopelessly naive or hopelessly stupid. His HBO show, Any Given Wednesday, was canceled before completing its first season, a week after drawing just 82,000 viewers. His website, the Ringer, attracted just 420,000 unique visitors in October, according to comScore. By Simmons’s own criterion, the fact that neither have found an audience definitionally means they aren’t good.
But it’s a bleak, Rovell-ian view of the world that presumes popularity is the only metric by which quality can be judged. Simmons’s projects, especially the Ringer, do better on merit, though none have been an unqualified success.
There isn’t anything unkind to write about AGW that hasn’t already been written. Simmons’s television presence didn’t improve from his days on NBA Countdown and The Grantland Basketball Hour, and he was woefully out of his depth as a solo host. The decision to pair interview subjects from separate fields mostly resulted in awkward silences, and Simmons didn’t ask enough news-making questions nor make guests comfortable enough to reveal interesting things. As a weekly show it was always two beats off the news, and the sole viral clip it birthed was Ben Affleck’s unhinged Ballghazi rant in the first episode.
The Ringer has been okay, which isn’t meant as a put-down—most sites are a lot worse than that. It’s Grantland-lite, a familiar sensibility expanded into new topic areas without much authoritativeness or depth. It’s a national publication that spends as much time on obscure topics as it does on popular or important ones, frequently in the form of themed weeks. It’s newsy, which mostly just means that takes are offered within a couple hours and sometimes on the weekend. All of this lives on a strange-looking website with an unfortunate color scheme, and is promoted with a social media voice that apes SB Nation’s cutesy condescending one.
Simmons isn’t yet, and doesn’t necessarily deserve to be, a failure, and after just five months it’s too early to definitively say what the Ringer is or will be. But HBO canceled Simmons’s TV show, the Ringer is struggling to find its way in a competitive market, and the Bill Simmons Media Group is an independent entity without major corporate backing or a track record of success. It’s fair to take stock of where exactly the enterprise stands.
HBO declined to comment on this story, and Bill Simmons didn’t respond to an email.
“One of the afflictions that comes with ego is the idea that you are responsible for your success and that ESPN isn’t,” ESPN television and radio host Dan Le Batard said on his radio show after AGW was canceled. He wasn’t gloating or being rude to Simmons, merely repeating a belief he’s expressed many times before. “It is another reminder, do not leave ESPN, man. ESPN is a monster platform that is responsible for all of our successes.”
With every big name that leaves ESPN, this only becomes more apparent. While plenty of ex-ESPNers have gone on to have fine careers, Keith Olbermann is about the only one who became more famous upon leaving Bristol. Such success is the exception, not the rule, and it seems Simmons underestimated how difficult it would be to succeed without the infrastructure of the most powerful sports-media company there is.
His post-ESPN career, though superficially similar to the one he left—hosting a television show, running a website—has required him to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. At ESPN he was an analyst on a panel show and the co-host of a glorified video podcast; at HBO he was solo-hosting a prime time show with celebrity guests, and was inevitably compared to HBO stablemates John Oliver and Bill Maher, masters of the form.
And while the Ringer might look like Grantland in some ways, Simmons’s leadership takes different forms. Simmons did a lot of nitty-gritty work at Grantland—his column kept the site afloat in the early days, and he personally made a number of hires—but former Grantlanders say his most important role was shielding the site from Bristol. Simmons had a very strong relationship with ESPN president John Skipper (until his unyielding petulance eroded it) and he worked to create a protective cocoon that allowed Grantland to operate without having to worry about corporate mandates or profitability.
At the Ringer, though, he is attempting to build a media empire all on his own. His name is on the incorporation paperwork for the Bill Simmons Media Group; he’s made all of the key hires; and he supposedly hasn’t taken any outside funding from anyone or anywhere but HBO. Merely being in a position to build an independent and profitable media company is an accomplishment in and of itself, but actually doing it is a very different thing.
At HBO, Simmons was put in a prime position to succeed. The network has a different economic model than most others on account of being subscription-based, and therefore has more leeway to patiently wait for a return on investment. It spent a relatively small amount of money on Simmons—his three-year contract is reportedly worth between $7 and $9 million annually, or less than the pilot for the failed and canceled HBO drama Vinyl—and HBO said his show got good pickup online, an increased focus of the company.
AGW’s low ratings were thus survivable. The fact that it wasn’t even allowed to get to the end of its first season—the cancellation was announced after the 16th of 20 planned episodes—is all you need to know about what HBO thought of the show. Simmons “wasn’t totally comfortable in front of a camera,” HBO president of programming Casey Bloys told the New York Times, signaling that it’s unlikely the network will give him a second bite at the apple.
That is perhaps because, just like at the end of his ESPN tenure, Simmons has lost his patron. He was hired by Mike Lombardo, who was HBO’s president of programming, but Lombardo stepped down in May (he’ll be the executive producer of a drama for HBO) and was succeeded by Bloys, who had been the head of comedy and drama. Bloys is the one who canceled the $100 million Vinyl, and is the one steering the ship during a transitional period for the network. Note that Peter Nelson, EVP of HBO Sports, and not Bloys, was quoted in the press release announcing Any Given Wednesday’s cancellation.
There are at least 18 months left on Simmons’s HBO contract, and it’s hard to imagine him sitting quietly and working on sports documentaries, but HBO can’t reasonably believe Simmons can successfully do much else for them. AGW was a failure, and the Game of Thrones recap show he produced, After the Thrones, was HBO’s lowest-rated series (until AGW came along). It may well be that it’s in HBO’s best interest to more or less let Simmons collect a check as the clock runs out on his deal.
The prospects for the Ringer are better, and also more complicated. According to comScore, the Ringer had 1.2 million unique visitors in July, 643,000 in August, 680,000 in September, and 420,000 in October. By comparison, Grantland averaged 2.3 million unique visitors per month in its first six months. That was five years ago, when sites generally drew less traffic, with a staff half the size of the Ringer’s, but with the ESPN.com firehose. (Grantland had 6.1 million unique visitors in October 2015, its final month of existence.)
There are caveats here. Medium, the platform The Ringer and other sites are on, doesn’t allow comScore to track their traffic directly, and a Medium spokesperson told me comScore doesn’t track traffic from the Medium app (though comScore says they do). The Medium spokesperson wouldn’t disclose traffic statistics, and the Ringer’s editor-in-chief, Sean Fennessey, didn’t respond to multiple emails, but a source familiar with traffic at one Medium publication says that internal numbers can be up to five times higher than what comScore reports.
Besides this, Medium publications aren’t oriented toward making money from bulk traffic. The platform has an advertising model eschewing banner ads and programmatic ad markets—which require large amounts of traffic—in favor of working hand-in-hand with brands. (Sites can also sign up advertisers on their own to sponsor projects like the Ringer’s “Future of Movies” week.)
Advertising is only a secondary function of traffic measurement, though. The main one is to know out how many people are reading a site. And whatever the Ringer’s actual audience, it’s relatively small and seems to have declined precipitously from August to October, which is not when a sports and culture site that is still hiring and heavily covers the NFL and NBA should be seeing traffic drop.
The Ringer doesn’t cover much hard news—either stories it breaks or aggregates from others—but instead traffics more in profiles, analysis, opinion, and commentary. News can provide a site with a pulse, and bring in new readers. Analysis and opinion necessitate a connection between readers and either the site or the author, and the Ringer’s lack of a coherent voice or breakout stars on the order of Zach Lowe or Rembert Browne makes that a hard sell. (Grantland, to be fair, took time to develop many of its more authoritative writers.)
The site’s choice of subjects is also puzzling; it often seems so eager to cover stories before they’ve hit a saturation point that it covers them before they’re even stories. There is frequent advice given to celebrities and Simmons-esque conceits taken too far, and way too many goddamn made-up stories. There is something admirable about indulging in quirkiness, but much of the site is truly, aggressively inessential.
Unsurprisingly, the Ringer’s podcasts have been successful. The Ringer Podcast Network currently consists of nine shows, and will surely grow. The Bill Simmons Podcast is as popular as ever, and Keepin’ It 1600—hosted by two former Obama advisors—became a small cultural phenomenon in advance of the election. Podcast metrics are notoriously unreliable and hard to come by, but Digiday reports that the Ringer family of podcasts total nearly five million downloads per month, making it a solid, mid-sized podcast network.
Bill Simmons isn’t the draw he once was. He couldn’t sustain a television audience, and his name alone hasn’t been enough to draw people to the Ringer. It could be that he’s 47, stretched incredibly thin, with a shtick that’s stuck in the late 1990s; it could be, as Dan Le Batard might contend, that he never actually was much of a draw, and was just propped up by ESPN’s cross-platform hype machine and front-page traffic hose. It probably doesn’t make much difference.
According to staffers at the Ringer, Simmons has said that the cancelation of Any Given Wednesday won’t affect the site. Still, any personality-oriented site will be affected by the dimming of its founder’s star. It’s hard to know how important profitability is to the Ringer without knowing more about its investors, but the sheer staff size and the relatively high salaries we’ve heard some staffers are getting would seemingly make that difficult even if it were very popular. That may not directly matter much to anyone save the people backing it, but an expensive project with a fairly small and declining audience is by its nature an open question.
“The site is going to be good immediately,” Simmons tweeted in May. “People will find it. Quality is always going to win.” It would be nice if that were true, but it isn’t. There are countless examples of quality projects never finding an audience and of shitty ones thriving, and no matter how good it is or isn’t, it’s a lot harder for a sports program or website to find success without the built-in backing of ESPN. Plenty of people could have warned Simmons about exactly that; as he always has, he believed he knew better.