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Volume 21 No. 26

Media

In the spring of 2007, ESPN NBA draft analyst Chad Ford interviewed Boston Celtics boss Danny Ainge. Ford posted a link to the podcast version on ESPN.com, where Bill Simmons — the site’s popular online “Sports Guy” columnist — stumbled across it.

Simmons clicked the link and, upon hearing the voices of Ford and Ainge, had two thoughts. His first: What is this? And his second, quickly conveyed to his bosses at ESPN: I need one of these, too.

ESPN agreed, but in rudimentary fashion. The California-based columnist’s bosses sent him a pair of headphones and basic equipment for a do-it-yourself production backed by a newly installed ISDN line at Simmons’ house.

“And I was off,” Simmons wrote in an email response to questions. “All I knew was that I wanted to have traditional guests mixed with friends. I knew I wanted to call my buddy JackO to argue about the Red Sox and Yankees and I knew I wanted to play Guess the Lines during the NFL season with my friend Cousin Sal. I knew some of my readers would enjoy that stuff. But I had no idea how it was going to unfold or how many people would listen.”

The popularity of Bill Simmons' podcast fueled the rise of sports shows.
Photo: Getty Images

Simmons, who said ESPN never shared audience numbers with him when the podcast started, only realized how popular his show, named the “B.S. Report,” was the following year, when “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers emailed him asking to be a guest on it.

 

It’s safe to say that, in the decade since Simmons began building an unlikely empire, he has become the reigning champion of sports podcasts. Last year his show, now called The Bill Simmons podcast and hosted on The Ringer, was the lone sports program among iTunes’ 20 most popular (industry analysts estimate that the Apple podcast app accounts for 50 percent to 70 percent of the total podcast audience).

 

Simmons' success has helped launch a sports podcast revolution. From authors to athletes, columnists to broadcasters, teams to networks, it seems everyone in sports is elbowing for a seat at the podcast table. And it’s not just the usual suspects that are breaking through. A recent listing of the 50 most popular sports podcasts on iTunes included six wrestling-related shows, including “The Jim Ross Report,” a show hosted by retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and one co-hosted by former MMA fighter Brendan Schaub.

 

“Right now, we’ve got 20 or so shows in sports,” said Casey Jacobs, PodcastOne vice president of sports and business development, citing an original show hosted by Shaquille O’Neal, a repackaged version of Dan Patrick’s national- radio program and a venture with the Associated Press. “Our criteria are smart and sophisticated and entertaining conversations for sports fans.”

 

That diversity of offerings is common in this space. Popular sports podcasts include radio and TV shows (think Fox Sports’ “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” or ESPN’s “First Take”) and numerous stand-alones, including those from Simmons and The Ringer, new ESPN programs hosted by Bomani Jones and Katie Nolan and Barstool Sports’ lineup, led by “Pardon My Take,” “KFC Radio” and “The Pat McAfee Show.”

 

Katie Nolan had a Fox Sports show and podcast before moving to ESPN.
Photo: Getty Images

Even with plenty of established sports podcast hits, industry analysts see ample room for expansion. ESPN expects to start a podcast later this year hosted by Mike Greenberg, and WNYC Studios is launching “American Fiasco,” hosted by Roger Bennett, a series coming in June, in advance of the U.S.-less men's World Cup.

 

Unlike TV, where live games account for all but a handful of the most-watched programs in the U.S. each year, sports podcasts trail shows focused on news and political shows or general interest in both audience size and revenue. But that could soon change. 

 

“A lot of [people] ask us where we see opportunities,” said Steve Shanks, partner at Ad Results Media, a company that places close to 35 percent of all podcasting advertising. “Two categories haven’t reached their potential: sports and business. Barstool and even The Ringer Network have shown ESPN hasn’t taken full advantage.” 

 

Among podcast publishers in March, industry analyst Podtrac found that only two sports programmers ranked among the top 10. ESPN was seventh based on its 4.4 million monthly unique listeners and 37.1 million unique streams and downloads for 60 programs. Barstool came in at No. 10 with 2.4 million monthly unique listeners and 19.5 million unique streams and downloads for its 23 shows. By comparison, No. 1 NPR had 16.3 million listeners and 130.8 million streams and downloads for its 42 programs.

 

“It’s very early [for podcasting],” said Barstool CEO Erika Nardini. “I like it as a business. I like any creative format that lets us connect with our fans that our fans find compelling and our talent enjoys doing.”

 

When Nardini arrived in July 2016 at Barstool — described at the time by Variety as “the churlish, sports-and-smut website for males” — it had three podcasts. Now it has 19. (Discrepancies between the number of shows counted by analysts such as Podtrac and companies including ESPN and Barstool stem from the former counting so-called repurposed content — TV, radio and video curated for podcasts — and original podcasts created specifically as on-demand audio.) Podcasts produce significant revenue, though Nardini said it’s less than half of the company’s total sales, which she also did not specify.

 

Podcasts are also making gains as an advertising vehicle compared to the far more established radio. A PwC-led industry study last year for the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that while radio advertising still dwarfs that of podcasts with annual ad spending of $18.3 billion in 2017, podcast ad revenue grew from $69 million in 2015 to $119 million the following year and to $220 million in 2017. The latter two figures reflect gains of 72 percent and 85 percent, respectively. However, several executives interviewed by SportsBusiness Journal said that, despite various studies and reports cataloging the rise of podcasting, one of the remaining challenges is a lack of consensus on how listenership and audience size are determined. “We need uniform measurement,” said Traug Keller, ESPN senior vice president of audio. “The industry has to nail it. We’re all working towards that.”

 

Nardini agreed. “When you look at other forms of digital advertising, podcasting is in its early innings,” she said. “There’s not automation around podcasting, there’s no single source of measurement. There are multiple forms of distribution. … There’s a lot to be shaken out.”

 

Strategies vary for podcasts but there are a few common denominators. Though shows can and do vary in running time, 45 minutes to an hour is a comfortable range for most producers. For advertisers, what’s referred to in radio as a live read — a testimonial by the host — remains the preferred pitch mode. According to the IAB study, such host-read ads account for 60 percent of podcast ads.

 

Podcasts have far fewer ads than an average hour of radio and ads tend to be less stacked in lengthy blocks. Barstool’s Nardini and others in the industry warn against disrupting that ad-content balance, for fear of turning off listeners and losing the impact of the ads.

 

According to Midroll Media, a podcast advertising company whose clients include Simmons’ Ringer Network and NFL.com’s “Around the NFL” as well as general interest shows like Marc Maron’s “WTF,” 88 percent of podcast subscribers listen to most or all of each episode, part of the reason 61 percent of listeners said they have purchased a product or service they heard about through a podcast.

 

“There’s a really fun creativity the host can put on these,” said Brendan Monaghan, CEO of podcast producer Panoply, a company that came from the creators of online publication Slate’s podcast network, and whose shows include the sports program “Hang Up & Listen.” Monaghan added, “You can riff all you want, [even] joke about a product.”

 

At Barstool, stretching live ad reads long ago turned into an informal competition among hosts. Nardini mentioned a recent 12-minute marathon spot for SeatGeek filled with digressions and musings as part of a “Mickstape” episode. 

 

Midroll’s ad clients include HBO, Dunkin’ Donuts, P&G, Squarespace and Allstate. Simmons’ podcast has long had a presenting sponsor — ZipRecruiter now and, before that, SeatGeek.

 

For advertisers, the demos of podcast listeners are the appeal. 

It’s very early [for podcasting]. I like it as a business. I like any creative format that lets us connect with our fans that our fans find compelling and our talent enjoys doing.
Erika Nardini
CEO, Barstool Sports

Most of Barstool’s listeners come from the hard-to-reach 18-to-34 demo. In April, Barstool invited 150 college students to its company headquarters in New York and one thing caught Nardini’s attention: When asked how they became Barstool fans, the majority said they discovered the company through social media or podcasts, not videos, satellite radio, blogs or other ventures.

 

In most cases, podcasts can stand alone financially, though revenue and profit still lag behind more established forms of media by a wide margin. But there is a business here to develop.

 

“If you can land the really A-plus talent where you’re looking at hundreds of thousands to millions of downloads, in that case, it’s a legit business,” said Richard Deitsch, media writer at The Athletic and host of an insidery sports media podcast. “The thing is, those aren’t easy to find. You have to have a couple of those guys or you have to have a really big network where you can make money on scale.”

 

Shanks, of AdResults Media, estimated that Simmons’ podcast and Barstool’s “Pardon My Take” could be generating in the range of $50,000 each per episode. Both podcasts produce three shows per week. Simmons declined to disclose financial figures, but, generally, the Ringer Network isn’t measured on a stand-alone basis of profitability for each show.

 

“Many of our deals involve multiple podcasts, so we don’t think of it that way,” he wrote.

 

During 2015, his last year at ESPN, Simmons said his “B.S. Report” and related Grantland pods generated a combined profit of $750,000, far less than he believed ESPN should have made through its ad sales. 

 

“It was embarrassing,” Simmons said. “We should have been making 10 times as much.”

 

ESPN opted not to delve into those numbers or engage in a back-and-forth with its former star. “When podcasting was in its infancy, Bill led the way and allowed us to see how great the space can be,” said Keller, the networks’ senior vice president of audio. “We’ve come a long way since then, building a business, and so has Bill.”

 

Barstool’s Nardini said their podcasts have given an additional boost to their business by helping increase spinoff sales for show-themed T-shirts and other tchotchkes. 

 

With so much untapped potential for this space, it’s easy to see why everybody in sports wants to be a part of the podcast explosion. "Audio on demand has nowhere to go but up," Monaghan said. In fact, no one interviewed for this story predicted retrenching any time soon for the larger players, although analysts and executives do expect that as the industry matures, consolidation will put pressure on smaller podcast producers.

 

“This is the newest form of audio and it has legs,” ESPN’s Keller said. “First there was AM, then there was FM. Then there was satellite. Then there was streaming — Pandora, Spotify. And now there is podcasting. I think podcasting, when all is said and done, is certainly going to rank as big as any of those things.”

 

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

“The Bill Simmons Podcast”

 Talent/Network: Bill Simmons/The Ringer
 Concept: Sports and pop culture conversations and interviews
 Frequency: Three times a week
Why we like it: Simmons’ show remains the king of sports podcasts, thanks in large part to a guest list that remains the envy of the industry. Authors Chuck Klosterman and Malcolm Gladwell, NBA star Kevin Durant, actors Al Pacino and Bryan Cranston and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates have all been on, though Simmons has also made stars out of his own friends and family by having them take part.

“Men in Blazers”

 Talent/Network: Roger Bennett and Michael Davies / NBCSN
 Concept: Two British diehards try to teach Yanks why to love the real football
 Frequency: Weekly
 Why we like it: Bennett, a journalist and documentarian, and Davies, a television executive, balance a unique brand of humor and irreverence with a deep love and knowledge for soccer, which they then pass onto an increasingly accepting American audience.

“The Tony Kornheiser Show”

 Talent/Network: Tony Kornheiser/This Show Stinks Productions
 Concept: The PTI co-host has re-created his old Washington, D.C., radio show as a podcast that he self-publishes and promotes by his own company
 Frequency: Five days per week
 Why we like it: The same reasons the 69-year-old Kornheiser likes it. “It’s a sports-based, smart, adult talk show. A lot of politics and culture, anything smart,” he said. “I [went into podcasting] because I was old and I wanted to try something new. I wanted to go into business for myself.”

“Sports? with Katie Nolan”

 Talent/Network: Katie Nolan/ESPN
 Concept/Talent: Digressive musings on anything going on in the sports world with help from her producers (known simply as Ashley and Dopp) chiming in
 Frequency: Once a week
 Why we like it: Nolan won critical raves for her Fox Sports show “Garbage Time” and her podcast of the same name before joining ESPN last year. She’s still gleefully sarcastic and, while she knows her sports, Nolan embraces the ridiculous without hesitation.

“Pardon My Take”

• Talent/Network: Dan Katz, aka Big Cat, and PFT Commenter/Barstool Sports
 Concept: Two former bloggers who often (always?) delve into not-safe-for-work asides, but also have a knack for getting guests to move beyond Crash Davis-style interview clichés
 Frequency: Three times a week
 Why we like it: It’s often juvenile and occasionally offensive, but the hosts — including PFT Commenter, whose real name is not publicly known — get away with pushing guests into ridiculous and interesting topics. Fox’s Joe Buck, ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, wrestler-turned-actor John Cena and Cubs star Kris Bryant are among the notables who have happily played along on recent episodes.

“Hang Up & Listen”

 Talent/Network: Josh Levin / Slate
 Concept: Eclectic discussion and perspective on various sports topics, often featuring journalist Stefan Fatsis
 Frequency: Once a week
 Why we like it: Clever conversation, interesting co-hosts (Fatsis and others from various publications and podcasts who come and go) and plenty of atypical sports musings. One recent episode offers ample evidence, featuring “The Good Place” creator Mike Schur sizing up the glories of “The Dan Le Batard Show” and Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey discussing his love of theater after recently producing a basketball-musical hybrid, “Small Ball.”

“Sports Media with Richard Deitsch”

 Talent/Network: Richard Deitsch/The Athletic
 Concept: Discussions with broadcasters, writers, producers and others in media
 Frequency: One to two times per week
 Why we like it: Deitsch’s current podcast is only a few weeks old, but it’s modeled on the one he did for three years at Sports Illustrated. From roundtables featuring writer James Andrew Miller and SBJ’s own John Ourand, among others, Deitsch digs into how interviews and game broadcasts come to life, explores the challenges faced by women and minorities in sports media, and features long-form interviews with everyone from the figure skating analysts Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski to CBS’s Jim Nantz to ESPN NBA analyst Doris Burke.

“Effectively Wild”

 Talent/Network: Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer and Jeff Sullivan, FanGraphs / FanGraphs
 Concept: Deep dives into all things baseball
 Frequency: Three or four episodes per week
 Why we like it: Whip-smart analysis, but not too serious to remember that this is baseball, not the U.N. To cite a recent, amusing touch: The show’s intro music soon after Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani left a recent game early because of a blister was, yes, the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” There's also a nice range of guests who complement the hosts without crowding out their insightful perspectives.

— Compiled by Erik Spanberg

Ross Tucker hosts or co-hosts four football-related podcasts as part of his RT Media.
Photo: courtesy of podcast one

Ross Tucker played seven seasons in the NFL as a journeyman offensive lineman, but when he retired in 2008 he was not yet 30 years old and knew he needed to do something else. He started by dabbling in writing at SI.com — “I went to Princeton, so I had to write all kinds of long papers on Machiavelli. I figured I could write a thousand words on the NFL, right?” he says — which led him to ESPN to write some more. In 2010 he got a new opportunity: The chance to host his own podcast.

 

Tucker didn’t even know what a podcast was, but he quickly accepted. It’s safe to say he got the hang of it pretty fast. In fact, Tucker, 39, has now become one of the industry’s best examples of someone who has made being a podcast host and owner his primary business. 

 

After leaving ESPN in 2013 he launched RT Media, which has five football-related podcasts. He is host or co-host of four of them: the “Ross Tucker Football Podcast,” “Fantasy Feast: Eatin’,” “The College Draft" and “Even Money,” while former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt hosts “The Business of Sports.” Tucker works with PodcastOne on ad sales and on his website, www.rosstucker.com, he promotes his sponsors, including Dollar Shave Club, SeatGeek, Shari’s Berries and Saxx Underwear. 

 

“It’s very successful as a business, a significant portion of my income,” said Tucker, while refusing to disclose financials. “That’s a huge priority for me to grow and promote the podcast. Because the way the economics of it work is the more listeners you have, then the more advertising dollars you’ll be able to have, and you’ll be able to command better rates.”

 

During the season, Tucker makes frequent guest appearances on local sports-talk stations across the country, which gives him the chance to mention his podcasts to increase the size of his audience. His other media roles include hosting “The Morning Kickoff” on SiriusXM’s NFL channel, doing color commentary on Ivy League games for NBC Sports Network, calling Westwood One syndicated NFL games as an analyst or sideline reporter, and appearing as a regular guest on Philadelphia sports station WIP. 

 

“It’s awesome, but I don’t have any control over those jobs,” Tucker said. “Every year it’s up to those bosses as to what my contract status is. Whereas a podcast, it’s the only thing in sports media you can own. A lot of guys work for ESPN, a lot of guys work for NFL Network. Those are great companies, but you don’t have any ownership.”

 

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

In this week’s First Look podcast, SBJ’s Abe Madkour, Bill King, Ted Keith and correspondent Erik Spanberg discuss this week’s cover story, ‘The Podcast Revolution.’

As Fox Sports President and COO, Eric Shanks runs a traditional linear TV business that has bet on live sports rights as the best way to grow its business.

As Hulu’s CEO, Randy Freer runs a disruptive digital business that has identified live sports as the best way for his company to entice subscribers.

 

During separate one-on-one interviews at last month’s CAA World Congress of Sports in Los Angeles, both executives spoke of the power of sports in ways that should ease league fears that their cash cow — sports rights revenue — could be about to take a hit.

 

Many of the country’s biggest sports leagues, including the NFL, NHL, MLB and NASCAR, will negotiate new media rights deals over the next two to five years. These leagues saw wild rights fees increases the last time their media rights were up for bid, fueled mainly by the growth of pay-TV networks like ESPN, FS1 and NBCSN, in addition to higher retransmission consent fees commanded by broadcast networks.

 

That red-hot market has slowed considerably, especially for those pay-TV networks that have dealt with dwindling subscriber bases combined with increasing rights fees payments. Worried that these networks may not fund more big rights fee increases, sports leagues have been courting deep-pocketed digital companies — Amazon, Facebook and Google — to sample their programming in the hopes that they will step in and become bidders for these packages.

 

Hulu's Randy Freer with SBJ's John Ourand.
Photo: tony florez photography

Those digital companies have shown some interest — all have done smaller sports deals. So far, however, they have not made a big investment in sports, and several league executives are skeptical that they will be ready to replace the linear TV players during the next round of rights negotiations.

 

The sports-focused strategies outlined by Shanks and Freer last month show that the bigger leagues shopping live sports rights still have most of the leverage.

 

“As we evolve, we will look for ways to acquire more subscribers,” said Freer, who used to be a top executive at Fox Sports. “Certainly, I have a long history in sports. I believe it’s valuable. I believe it will help us acquire subscribers along the way. I think it has to be the right package or has to be the right components of it.”

 

Right now, when Freer talks about Hulu’s commitment to sports, he is talking about partnering with existing networks, which Hulu did with ESPN (around the College Football Playoff) and NBC (around the Olympics). During his on-stage interview, Freer did not rule out cutting rights deals directly with leagues. Those deals, though, would look a lot different from the linear packages leagues currently sell to TV channels.

 

“In today’s world, it’s bundled, it’s packaged, it’s a linear channel that ultimately gets a per sub fee and away you go,” he said. “Tomorrow, you’re going to see much more dynamic pricing.”

  

It’s a variation on what some executives have called the iTunes of sports. That means selling one Saturday of college football games to a Hulu subscriber who doesn’t want to pay for an entire season’s worth of games. It also could mean selling individual games — Freer brought up a Yankees-Red Sox game — for a specific price that still has not been determined.

 

“One of the bedrocks for why I think sports is important to direct-to-consumer businesses is because it has great value and you can offer it in a different way, reprice things, recreate value and give people the opportunity to come in and come out across the board,” Freer said. “Ultimately over time, sports rights will continue to prove their value. The challenge we all have is to innovate on how we distribute those rights to customers.”

 

Fox Sports’ Eric Shanks said live sports remain the key for adding subscribers.
Photo: tony florez photography

While Fox is taking a more traditional route when it comes to sports, it sees the same value in sports programming. Fox is in the middle of selling its entertainment assets to Disney, which will put the focus of a new, smaller network on sports. Shanks did not talk about the underlying strategy behind what’s being called New Fox. But he did say that sports will be a big part of its programming strategy.

 

“Even before you think about New Fox or Current Fox, our desire to be the leader in sports started 25 years ago,” Shanks said. “Sports is watched live. The top of the sports pyramid is the events themselves. We see that they are consumed much more.”

 

That’s a situation Freer has noticed at Hulu, too. Video has divided up into two groups: on-demand, which is filled with entertainment programming; and live, which is dominated by sports and news. Up to 80 percent of Hulu’s live customers watched big sports events, like the Olympics or March Madness, when they were on, Freer said.

 

“We find that news and sports are heavily watched live on this service. Entertainment, as you would imagine, is flipped the other way,” Freer said. “Live sports is hugely important to us.”

 

Fox’s recent deal to pick up “Thursday Night Football” is a good example of how the network views live sports rights. The previous “Thursday Night Football” rights holders CBS and NBC said they lost money on the package and put forward tepid bids to renew it. Fox came in with a bid that would pay the NFL more money for a longer period of time.

 

How does Fox believe it can make money where other broadcasters couldn’t?

 

“It starts with the strategic goal of being the leader in live,” Shanks said. “We’re big believers in football and big believers in the NFL. The thing that was unique about the opportunity of Thursday night was that this really was a different opportunity than they had presented in the past. It was a longer term, which was unique and lets you have predictability in your investment. It also allows you to not only have a conversation around advertising but also around retrans and building your broadcast stations and broadcast network over a longer period of time. The length of the term combined with the fact that you’re able to have consistency during the season — all 11 games are on Fox with weeks one and two and the later games being on NFL Network. It really made sense to us.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

Fox Sports President and COO Eric Shanks put on a brave face about producing a World Cup from Russia that will not include the U.S. men’s national team.

 

Over the last six months, Fox Sports has changed its marketing, storytelling and coverage plans, which include having four of its six broadcast teams call games remotely from a Los Angeles broadcast studio.

 

While he obviously would have preferred having a U.S. team in the draw, Shanks said Fox Sports has had to make several changes to its marketing plan that ultimately could benefit the network. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said.

 

The campaign will have more of a focus on international soccer stars, like Neymar, Ronaldo and Messi, than previously was planned.

 

“When you see our campaign, it’s really centered around the stars,” Shanks said. “It always was going to have a huge component of world-class soccer in it.”

 

Shanks also referenced a marketing campaign with 23andme, which will offer “World Cup DNA tests” to help U.S. viewers figure out the teams they should support.

 

“It’s the greatest melting pot in the world that we live in — everybody is from somewhere else,” he said. “People can have fun figuring out their ancestry and figuring out what team they have a connection to.”