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Volume 21 No. 6
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The Podcast Revolution

Audio on demand has created stars and unlocked business opportunities — and it’s not slowing down

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.