Issue 252,  published March 31, 2020

For Sports Pods, What Now?

No matter what industry you’re part of, work at the moment feels completely alien and bizarre. But if that industry happens to be sports media, well, then that sensation is especially strong, because the very thing you cover has literally stopped happening. (For the most part.)

As far back as January 22, sporting events that were meant to take place in Wuhan like the Olympic boxing qualifiers were being postponed, and that effect snowballed as the virus spread, with the NBA suspended on March 12, and the UK’s Premier League following the next day. Since widespread quarantine measures began, even casual sport in most countries has ceased.

As well as working out how to keep their employees safe and their businesses running, sports media outlets have had to evolve a new kind of coverage. It’s always been a long running joke in the UK that the BBC radio coverage of test cricket — a show called Test Match Special — is better when rain stops play, because that’s when the commentators head off on extremely weird hours-long tangents about pigeons and eat all the cakes that listeners send in. But now that every single planned sports broadcast is just dead air to be filled, there has to be a strategic shift rather than just endless ad libs.

As a case study, I decided to focus in on the British football podcasting scene this week. As I’ve written about before, football coverage makes up a significant chunk of profitable podcasting in the UK. That’s partly because it’s an area where UK-based shows don’t have to compete with what’s coming out of the US, and partly it’s just because of how deep football fandom runs here — people are used to spending money to keep up with their teams via tickets, merch or TV packages. That dynamic is also what led The Athletic to launch in the UK in August 2019, having raised an extra $50 million for overseas expansion, and to poach dozens of British sports journalists with big salary offers to make a new slate of premium, ad free football podcasts.

I’ve been checking in with football podcasters over the past few days, and naturally, the main thing that everyone is dealing with is how to fill their episodes now. Neil Atkinson from The Anfield Wrap (TAW) — a Liverpool based company with well over 10,000 paying subscribers — told me that they’re still putting out their two free shows a week, as well as another ten or so premium episodes and daily videos. “What I’m finding is that structured formats help,” he said. “And good guests, guests we wouldn’t otherwise have got.” Now that almost everyone in the field is stuck at home, it’s much easier to get players and pundits on a quick call to record.

As well as covering how players and support staff are handling the situation, TAW is dipping into comedy, history and broader fan culture. Iain Macintosh, chief executive of Muddy Knees Media — best known for The Totally Football Show and other associated podcasts — spoke of similar plans. His team just has “an inexhaustible supply of new feature ideas”, he said. “We’re not trying to replicate what we did before, because we can’t, but rather see it as a chance to go through all those things that we’ve talked about doing that, you know, real life has got in the way. Now we can get them out there and give them some air.” That includes a forthcoming “Pundit World Cup”, as well as film reviews, documentaries and quizzes.

Anders Kelto, co-host and executive producer for the daily podcast The Lead at The Athletic, echoed this. “One of my first thoughts was, ‘Will it make sense for us to continue doing our podcast?’,” he said. “It was just so hard to imagine what the sports landscape would look like, and what kinds of stories we would cover on a daily sports news show, if there were no actual competitions going on. But it quickly became apparent that there were tons of interesting stories to cover — some related to coronavirus and others not.” As well as discussing the virus fallout, Kelto and colleagues are making sure to keep up with stories like the US women’s soccer team and their fight for equal pay to keep a balance of material on their feed.

Even with plenty to fill the time, sports media is in a strange position, Atkinson reflected. “I think that people either want information about the virus and the reality of the situation or they want to escape it,” he said. “At TAW, we can make episodes that don’t even mention it, but the very nature of our shows and what’s absent from them is a reminder of it. So we’re neither a complete escape nor are we addressing it explicitly from a news or scientific point of view.”

So far, Macintosh reported that things were steady on the business front for Muddy Knees. (Their sports shows are primarily ad supported.) “Everyone’s nervous, for lots of reasons, personal and professional. But our contracts are all in place and are holding up,” he said. Overall listening figures haven’t really changed, but episodes now have a much longer tail as material is less time sensitive and listeners don’t necessarily have time to hit play immediately after release. The company also makes non sports shows, and that decision to diversify is paying dividends now. They’ve picked up a new commission to make an educational history podcast for the BBC as part of their homeschool strand, and had new inquiries from brands looking for marketing options while staff are quarantined.

At TAW, they’ve seen “an increase in cancellations” on their £5 (about $6.20) monthly subscription, although Atkinson said they’ve had a bad six weeks prior to the virus outbreak because of technical difficulties on their website so it’s not easy to separate the two. “We will have to make a couple of business decisions around the options the government has put forward,” he said, “but we’re not having panicked calls about what we do next.” Sponsor reads are still coming in from Audioboom for their free shows, and right now they’re focused on serving their community with as much good content as they can.

According to the Financial Times, The Athletic was very close to its goal of 100,000 paying subscribers in the UK before the virus outbreak. The free trial period has recently been extended from 7 to 90 days, no doubt as a way of keeping people on the hook during difficult economic times. Co-founder Adam Hansmann told the FT that despite the current difficulties, the company still had “a clear line of sight to profitability.”

At both ends of the scale — TAW with a dozen staff and The Athletic with over 400 — subscription-based sports media is likely to feel the effect of the next few weeks and months acutely as customers have to cut back on expenses. As everyone I spoke to laid out, how great the impact is really depends on how soon professional sport can get started again. And that’s the one thing that nobody knows right now.