Today, Bill Simmons announced that he was selling his influential pop culture brand The Ringer to Spotify. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although you can assume its for less than Barstool Sport’s absurd gambling-feud $450 million acquisition a few weeks ago.
Broadly, the deal makes a lot of sense. Simmons has done the near-impossible in late 2010s digital media industry: he’s built a successful organization that a lot of people care about. This growth has mostly been fueled by The Ringer’s popular podcast network, anchored by Simmon’s own podcast and a number of pop culture and sports themed shows. Meanwhile, Spotify has been trying to build out their podcast operations to create a higher-margin alternative to licensed music streaming, increasing the focus on podcasts in the Spotify app and acquiring studios like Gimlet Media. Buying The Ringer immediately makes Spotify a big player in exploding sports audio scene; Spotify CEO Daniel Ek somewhat optimistically said the deal meant “we’re basically getting the new ESPN.”
It’s in the margins of the acquisition where things get a little hazy. Spotify is saying that they will be hiring all 90 of The Ringer’s employees, yet the majority of those employees work on The Ringer’s website and online video projects, something Spotify has historically had zero interest in.* Those divegent interests have understandably made The Ringer’s newly-formed union uncomfortable. Since the news of a possible acquisition broke a few weeks ago, union’s Twitter has been putting out pointed statements asking for transparency around what the deal would mean for the non-audio employees. As of this morning, they’re still waiting for that clarification.
Keeping The Ringer’s website functioning would be a completely new business for Spotify. It’s also not the obvious play; Simmons has said repeatedly that The Ringer as whole is profitable, but its essentially an open secret that the business is carried by podcast advertising.
Those podcasts are mostly hosted by members of The Ringer’s upper-masthead, including Simmons, cheif content officer Sean Fennessy, EIC Mallory Rubin, and Editorial Director Chris Ryan, or by freelanced celebrities like chef David Chang and commentator Larry Wilmore. The website’s staff writers, editors, and video producers, all of whom operate under a byline and without the security of a podcast-created fan base, face a much more uncertain future.
This morning, Simmons posted a screen grab of the Spotify app playing the ABBA song “Take A Chance On Me”. In it, he tagged Fennessey, Ryan, Rubin, Head of Production Juliet Litman. For those senior members at least, the Spotify future appears to be bright.
I’ve put in a request for comment to Spotify, I’ll update this post if I hear anything back.
*Spotify briefly attempted to build a video service a few years ago, but those efforts have mostly been abandoned.