Last year, Spotify made a splash when it bought a series of podcasting companies. Now it may be at it again: The company is in conversations to buy The Ringer, the podcast-centric startup founded by sports media entrepreneur Bill Simmons.
Spotify, which spent about $400 million in 2019 by acquiring three podcasting companies — Gimlet Media, Anchor FM, and Parcast — has had talks with Simmons that date back at least as far as October 2019, according to people familiar with discussions. It’s not clear how advanced the talks are now; Spotify may also be interested in buying other podcast companies.
If a Spotify-Ringer deal happens, it would signal that Spotify thinks the podcast deals it did last year were money well-spent, and that podcasting will be an important part of the music company’s future. What it wouldn’t indicate is what would happen to The Ringers’ popular sports and culture podcasts, which are currently available for free on every platform, including Apple’s dominant Podcast app.
It’s a decent bet, though, that Spotify would at least be interested in getting Simmons’ group to create more Spotify-exclusive podcasts, like the “Hottest Take” series it started making for Spotify last September.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the talks. Reps for Spotify and The Ringer declined to comment; Simmons hasn’t responded to a request for comment. (Vox Media, which owns Recode, has a commercial relationship with The Ringer.)
There’s some basic logic to a would-be deal: Last year Spotify announced that podcasting would become an important part of its business, and it has been making moves to both push its own, exclusive podcasts, as well as to promote podcasts in general.
And while The Ringer has a web publishing operation, and has made forays into videos and TV shows, the bulk of its revenue comes from podcasting. Last year, the Journal reported that the company was generating more than $15 million a year from podcasts.
Simmons has been immersed in podcasting since 2007, when he was a rising star at Disney’s ESPN unit. After ESPN let him go in 2015, Simmons started his own site. HBO initially backed the site, and it also hired him to create a short-lived TV show he hosted, along with other programming. Simmons has never disclosed if he has other investors.
Simmons has talked about selling his company before. Last year he discussed a sale with AT&T’s WarnerMedia, proposing a price around $100 million, according to a source familiar with discussions. WarnerMedia was already working with Simmons via its HBO unit; it also owns Turner, the TV network that owns Bleacher Report, a digital sports publisher it acquired in 2012.
Talks between WarnerMedia and Simmons stopped before news that Spotify was buying Gimlet broke. Since Spotify embarked on its podcast buying spree, lots of podcast-related businesses have imagined that their value has increased, so it’s quite possible that Simmons feel the same.
Spotify has said it wants to invest in podcasts for several reasons. It thinks Spotify users who listen to podcasts are more likely to pay for a premium version of Spotify, and less likely to stop using the service.
Spotify also wants to use podcasting to build up its advertising business; earlier this month, it announced plans to provide ad targeting for podcast advertisers using Spotify listeners’ demographics and behavior. That’s the data marketers already use for standard Web ads — using the same tech that tells advertisers whether you looked at slippers on Zappos, or which website you visited before you got to Vox.com — but hasn’t been widely available for podcast advertisers. If it delivers, the conventional ad business believes, a lot more ad dollars would come into the industry.
Podcasting is growing fast, but it is still a niche business compared to the rest of the ad world. Last year, Edison Research estimated that 32 percent of the people in the US over age 12 — that’s 90 million people — listened to a podcast each month. That’s up from 11 percent a decade ago.
But advertisers usually take a while to follow users. Podcasting advertising is supposed to generate more than $860 million this year and $1 billion in 2021. But the rest of digital advertising brings in well more than $107 billion in the US.
And Spotify believes it can get better economics from podcasting than it does from the music labels who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of its business. Eventually – and theoretically — if podcasting becomes big enough — Spotify’s overall margins could improve, and that could convince Wall Street that Spotify is more valuable.
Up until now, Apple has dominated podcasting, primarily because of the popularity of its iOS operating system, which features a built-in podcasting app. But while Apple’s media chief Eddy Cue, who likes Simmons, would likely be unhappy to see Spotify lock up his company and podcasts in an exclusive deal — if that’s what it ended up doing — I would be surprised if he made a counter-offer.
That’s because Apple executives say they don’t view podcasting as a business and aren’t likely to change their perspective soon: Right now, podcasting is overwhelmingly an ad-based business that’s free to users. And Apple does very little in the ad business, and has staked out a pro-privacy, anti-ad targeting position.
Unless Apple’s theology changes — which is very unlikely — or consumers show a willingness to pay for podcasts, instead of listening to free, ad-supported ones, Apple is unlikely to think podcasting will be a business it wants to participate in.
That said, Apple has been expanding its modest podcasting team (Apple recently hired a Vox Media employee who specialized in podcast promotion), and wants to promote podcast consumption on its platform. Apple has also talked to podcast companies about making a handful of exclusive podcasts, but so far those seem limited to companion podcasts for other Apple projects, like its Apple TV shows.
Worth noting: The Spotify-Ringer talks are happening at the same time that sports media startup Barstool Sports may be sold to Penn National, a regional gambling company. Probably coincidental: Both The Ringer and Barstool are led by men who started blogging about Boston sports.