Typically, Bill Simmons writing about the impending free agency of an NBA superstar wouldn't garner any more attention than any other column in the popular sportswriter's arsenal.
But last Friday, when Simmons wondered which team Kevin Durant will sign with this summer, it had the notoriety of being the ESPN-turned-HBO personality's first published column in more than a year. It was also his first column for The Ringer, his new site that many in the industry have already dubbed "Grantland 2.0."
And you couldn't be faulted for thinking that. After all, besides Simmons, more than a dozen former Grantland staffers have followed him to his new venture, including editor-in-chief Sean Fennessey, executive editor Chris Ryan; deputy editor Mallory Rubin; and managing editor Juliet Litman. But Fennessey tells Adweek that The Ringer is more than just a sequel to Simmons' former ESPN-owned sports and pop culture site.
For starters, The Ringer isn't part of a corporate behemoth like ESPN, but rather, it is part of The Bill Simmons Media Group, which is run by former NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger. "It's just a much different entity here," said Fennessey. "There's a little bit more of a spirit of experimentation."
The Ringer will experiment with branching out from Grantland staples like sports and pop culture to other areas, but "the DNA will be similar," Simmons told Adweek in an email. Tech and politics will be a major focus for the site. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Pres. Barack Obama, is among the contributors.
"There is a particular way of writing about these things that we felt was missing," said Fennessey, who described The Ringer's approach as curiosity and enthusiasm, mixed with a mild hint of skepticism. "A lot of tech reporting, while essential and important, is often very straightforward and product driven." The Ringer's tech articles have ranged from Snapchat overtaking Twitter as the social media platform du jour, to Kim Kardashian's booming emoji business.
"We want to try to do more food and drink," says Fennessey, who hopes to launch new coverage areas in July, when the sports calendar is at its lightest, and before the Republican and Democratic conventions later that month. "A lot of our coverage areas are very seasonal," he says.
Hours after the news broke just after midnight Saturday that Muhammad Ali had died, a Keith Olbermann-penned Ali tribute went up. "It reacts a little better to news and the 24/7 cycle," Simmons says of The Ringer, which is the first premium-content website to be housed on Medium, the self-publishing platform from Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. "We've been helping them evolve their platform for premium publishers," says Geoffrey Chow, COO of The Ringer. "In terms of social and engagement, we like that platform a lot in the way that our audience can engage with us."
Unlike Grantland, where Simmons ran the entire show, Fennessey, Weinberger and Chow, will take the day-to-day lead. "The HBO show has been swallowing me up for the past few months," Simmons says, adding, "The site needed me most from October to February as we were figuring out what it was."
Any Given Wednesday, Simmons's HBO show, will launch June 22.
It was revealed last week that HBO was among the initial investors in The Ringer and has priority on deals for the site's video programming. With numerous traditional media companies hooking up with digital-native outlets, HBO may have found its partner. After The Thrones, a Game of Thrones recap show that airs on HBO Now, is hosted by The Ringer's Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan.
"We have some other content ideas that we'll discuss with them in the future," says Chow. "It's a wait and see approach on some level."
Months before The Ringer's launch, Simmons launched his own podcast network, something The Ringer will rely heavily on, and which was something of a sore spot for him during his ESPN days.
"It's going to be able to actually monetize its podcast network," said Simmons when asked how The Ringer wouldn't go the way of Grantland. "It won't be handicapped for resources on the social media, new media and branded content sides."
Chow added that the podcast network already provides them with "significant" revenue from advertisers including SeatGeek, Yahoo Fantasy Sports and Calloway. "We've been fortunate to have a brand that advertisers recognize already." Miller Lite has signed on as the initial presenting sponsor for the site, and Chow says they're in discussions for more to come on board in the months ahead.
"We want to get the creative and editorial right," said Weinberger, who's also an executive producer on Any Given Wednesday. "We're very focused on getting the content right so when we do partner up with people we give them best product possible."