I want to preface this piece by saying that it is my opinion based on nearly two decades of observing Bill Simmons and is not based on any inside information about his or Spotify’s plans with The Ringer. With that out of the way, the publicly abrasive manner in which the Ringer union is poking Simmons may ultimately lead to short-term victories but I think that in the long run he’ll never get over it and the rank-and-file workers are marching themselves off a cliff.
The Ringer staffers first announced they were unionizing last August, and at the time their tone was largely positive. They collectively said their intent was “to strengthen our already amazing workplace culture.” The tone of individual staffers similarly indicated that they loved where they worked and wanted to keep it that way. Over the past year, the relationship has grown more fractious. This past January, after reporting first emerged that Ringer could sell to Spotify, the union blasted Simmons for his silence (anything he could have said would’ve violated NDAs, which are common in these transactions).
This past June, the union collaborated with the New York Times on a hit piece about Simmons and the lack of diversity at The Ringer. Simmons made an infamous comment about how this wasn’t “open mic night” — he had a fair point that he was taken out of context, and that his answer was framed as having to do with diversity but in fact had nothing to do with that in his email answer, but it was still a hubristic thing for him to say.
Fast-forward to Labor Day and today. They’re not directly naming him, but The Ringer union is putting Simmons on blast for entry-level compensation and advancement opportunities. Some examples:
Today, our testimonials show how crucial it is to make a livable wage. Here are some of our staffers' personal experiences about struggling to make ends meet. More to come.
— Ringer Union (@RingerUnion) September 7, 2020
— Ringer Union (@RingerUnion) September 7, 2020
The Ringer’s annual entry-level salary is around $42,900. That doesn’t cover what it costs to live in L.A., where the company is headquartered and requires most employees to reside. We broke down the numbers in the chart below. pic.twitter.com/hxeoIvx7RG
— Ringer Union (@RingerUnion) September 8, 2020
I’ll grant them that the pandemic has proven it’s outdated for The Ringer to compel entry-level staffers to live in Los Angeles when they could live handsomely in, like, Racine, Wisconsin for $43,000 a year. Nevertheless, the pie chart also acts like it’s their inalienable right to own a car fresh out of college, and that they can’t find rent for under $1,369 a month. I know LA is more expensive than Chicago, but in the latter my share of rent for a three-bedroom duplex a block from a great park and close to public transit is $1,000. I was paying about $625 a month in my mid-20’s. There must be more economical rent situations than $1,369 a month for them somewhere in the region. Utilities also look pretty high. They’re entitled to live without roommates?
I’m sensitive to the argument that low entry-level compensation is a barrier to non-privileged workers’ ability to take the job, but $43,000 a year doesn’t seem like a grave injustice for coveted jobs that can be leveraged into individual stardom. And who in sports media do they think is getting overtime pay?
There are benefits to working at The Ringer right now that are not immediately tangible, but for which they should nonetheless have gratitude. When they explain to friends, family members, and strangers alike where they work they are likely to be met with interest and envy. Just being associated with The Ringer will propel their individual branding in the long run. Hardly a month goes by where I don’t see a press release about someone who wrote for Grantland getting an exciting new opportunity.
Yes, Spotify bought The Ringer for nine figures and thus could probably afford to pay rank-and-file workers more. However, how much of the revenue comes from Bill Simmons’ podcast and those of other stars? There’s no way to know, exactly, but the answer is almost all of it.
The last six months in media, to say nothing for the last five years, have been a steady flow of news about layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts. Have you read anything about that happening at The Ringer?
This isn’t to fully absolve Bill Simmons. There are so many people on the masthead at The Ringer that there are distinct tiers of Haves and Have-nots. Most of the Haves worked with him at Grantland, are his personal friends, or already had robust careers before their present jobs. There are some people, like basketball writer Kevin O’Connor, who have massively elevated themselves at The Ringer, but it does feel like there was more opportunity for personal advancement at Grantland.
Nonetheless, the platform has the potential for writers to pursue original ideas and have the time to fully flesh them out. If they do something great there, it gets noticed by a lot of smart readers and marketplace decision-makers. There’s ample space for them to carve out a niche.
I don’t know what the right way to go about solving these issues for the union would be, but what they’re doing isn’t that. They’ve already created a resentment from Simmons where he barely shares any union members’ work on Twitter, and tags them in those tweets even less frequently. That’s now. Later will come a point where Simmons, his editorial management team, and the people at Spotify huddle and wonder what the right size is for The Ringer. These tweet threads, which get cheered on by digital writers on the coasts, aren’t going to wind up having been a winning strategy.