Neil Atkinson reckons that 95 per cent of English-speaking Liverpool fans would love the Anfield Wrap. Given the English soccer giant’s total social media following is more than 85.5 million, the club-dedicated podcast company has a lot of potential subscribers to target.
However, Atkinson insists that, despite the format’s popularity, it still has challenges to overcome in order to realise its full potential, a major part of which comes down to being seen as less “bedroom”. The Anfield Wrap has built a successful business based on the quality of its output, but its chief executive wants the entire podcast space to match up to his company’s levels.
“I don’t like to think of what we do as bedroom or DIY - I use the phrase ‘bespoke’,” Atkinson tells SportsPro. “We produce, I think, high quality content for a quite specific worldwide marketplace. What we need to do is [achieve] greater brand recognition and for people not to feel as though it will be shite, to be honest with you. It doesn’t matter what genre it is in, people’s first introduction to a podcast needs to be quality.”
The team behind The Anfield Wrap hosts live shows to drive audience interaction and build a sense of community
He adds: “In terms of the content, when it’s funny, I want it to be really funny, when it is insightful, I want it to be really insightful. Obviously, you don’t manage to do that every single time - no one does and you have got to accept that. What you can do is at least aim for that within the boundaries and the tools that you have got.”
Iain Macintosh, who founded Muddy Knees Media (MKM) three years ago before selling it to The Athletic back in May, sees it the same way. MKM’s high-profile launch for its The Totally Football Show in August 2017 saw it nab James Richardson and Ben Green, the respective host and producer of The Guardian’s award-winning British soccer podcast Football Weekly. Macintosh estimates he started the company with around UK£30,000 (US$39,400) but spent most of that on things he knew would guarantee quality.
“The biggest things we got right were that we didn’t have very much money and we invested it all in the places where the listener would be able to tell,” he says. “So, you know, James Richardson, best podcast presenter, Ben Green, best podcast producer, and we hired studios at Jazz FM which were absolutely unbelievable studios. So all of the money was gone, but the listener would go ‘that sounds amazing’. It was a perfect show, so we got the core bit right.”
In the US, where annual ad revenues are more than three times higher than the next biggest market, China, the podcast industry is a lot more advanced and the challenge is standing out in a crowded marketplace.
As editor-in-chief at The Ringer and co-host of the popular Binge Mode show, Mallory Rubin was central in the digital sports and culture outlet becoming the podcast network that Spotify saw fit to pay US$196 million for back in February. When The Ringer looks to expand its network, any new show must not only find a unique angle on a subject, but also fit with the company’s established and evidently popular tone of voice.
“Often Ringer podcasts start with an idea that somebody is excited about and maybe that idea is macro,” Rubin tells SportsPro. “We cover a lot of NBA, we cover a lot of NFL, we cover a lot of pop culture. How can we continue to carve out our lanes in signature ways? In ways where we know that, given the subject matter, is going to be something that stands out, something that people gravitate toward.
“For example, we asked: how do we expand our fantasy football offering? That’s something that began with two Ringer NFL writers, Danny Heifetz and Danny Kelly, popping on to an existing feed, The Ringer NFL Show. It’s a bit of an oversimplification but if it’s something that we care about, often we think, ‘well, if we care about this, is it reasonable to deduce that other people care about this too?’ Of course, with fantasy football, you know the answer is yes. It’s a massive growing thing, but what’s our way in?
“Sports, pop culture, ubiquitous by nature, right? A lot of people talk about the same things, so that’s always something that we ask ourselves: how can we make our show unique? How can we make our show reflective of The Ringer spirit, The Ringer vibe?”
Identifying an audience is vital for the success of a new show, but even with quality content and what looks like a gap in the market there has to be a reason for people to listen. Experimenting outside of sports in January 2019, MKM launched Acting Up, a podcast about the world of musical theatre. The show only lasted 15 episodes before being cancelled, and while Macintosh insists the content was good, he admits that MKM misread what the audience wanted.
“What we had done was identify that loads of people love musical theatre and that there wasn’t any big musical theatre podcast,” he says. "So, it seemed simple. There is a gap everyone else has missed it, we will jump in and fill it.
“The mistake we made was that people listened to The Totally Football Show because they want to get their update on what is happening in football and what intelligent, amusing people think about it. People didn’t want that with musical theatre.
“We had a great show, a fantastic presenter [Jamie Crick], we had Kerry Ellis who has been in so many big shows and they were having lively, spirited debates. But musical theatre fans liked music. They just liked the songs, they are not even that bothered who is in them, apart from like a hardcore audience.
“The idea of someone moving from one show to another it is not like Fernando Torres leaving Liverpool for Chelsea for UK£50 million, not that many people are too concerned. Musical theatre exists for the night out, the experience. The being with your friends and the singing the songs and we couldn’t bring any of that to the show.”
Drawing comparisons between podcasts and long-form writing, Atkinson puts it more succinctly: “What football supporters say they want is excellent writing, they say want innovative work and they say that they want to understand the history of the sport. But what they actually care about is whether or not Joe Allen has got a knee injury.”
When we go and do live shows we try not to have a green room. I don’t want us to be sat in the back, I want us to be out there chatting to people, talking to them. I think all of that stuff matters.
Neil Atkinson, The Anfield Wrap chief executive
Beyond the content, Atkinson says building a community around the brand is also key. Refusing to be limited by geography, he sees the Anfield Wrap as taking the community spirit of Liverpool to a global audience – a Scouse accent in a worldwide marketplace. That is reflected in its subscriber base: the show has more listeners in London than Liverpool and 50 per cent of the total tune in from outside the UK.
Not every club has quite the same scope for fostering a supporter-centric media business as Liverpool, of course. But the desire to feel part of something bigger is universal amongst fans in any sport. Atkinson believes that the Anfield Wrap’s network of 100 or so contributors is crucial in creating that connection.
“We had a really, really strong group of contributors by the time we got to about 2015,” he recalls. “People who believed in what we were doing, who believed in the way we were doing it, who believed in the tone that we set and what we wanted people to do.
“It was important that they enjoyed it and it was important that they gave over of themselves. They almost underpin our entire community feel. The people feel close to the [contributors] and that they are very generous with themselves in return.”
That ethos starts at the top with Atkinson, who is still an active host.
“When I do a hot mic, we get however many hundreds, possibly thousands of people, we chat in the comments, they ask us stuff, we reply to it,” he says. “When we go and do live shows, you know, we do shows all the time where there is audience interaction via social media. We try not to have a dressing room or a green room. I don’t want us to be sat in the back, I want us to be out there chatting to people, talking to them. I think all of that stuff matters, and it is sort of the core of who we are and what we are about.”
The cast of Muddy Knees Media's Totally Football Show is fronted by presenter James Richardson (centre)
Macintosh also cites the personal element of listening to a podcast as central to creating listener loyalty.
“With a podcast it is an opportunity to have a really intimate bond with this show that you have to take an effort to get it in your ear,” he says. “You have to find it and you have to listen to it when you have got a choice to listen to absolutely anything else that is out there. You have got to take it further and cement the relationship by subscribing, and then also remembering to keep going back.”
If those personal or holistic approaches to building a community around a podcast are something of an art, then The Ringer’s strategy could be categorised as more scientific. Rubin insists there is no template for how they approach audio content, but there is certainly a clear effort made towards being cross-platform.
For bigger verticals, such as the National Football League (NFL) or National Basketball Association (NBA), there are daily touchpoints which build a brand around editorial talent - be that in written form, video content or podcasts.
Rubin explains: “If you’re listening to Kevin Clark on The Ringer NFL show, you’re also going to be reading Kevin’s columns. You’re going be watching him on [the] Slow News Day [YouTube show]. You’re going to know that you can hear him multiple times per week on his [podcast] and you’re going to know that each of the shows that he’s doing has different intent to different format to different approach. You’re also going be able to follow him on Twitter. You’re going be able to go to The Ringer NFL show Facebook group.
“We try to do crossover episodes on a lot of our shows to build and foster that connection. That creates connection between the listenership and the host.”
For all output, thought is put into what format gives a show the best chance to succeed.
“Take something like Ten Questions with Kyle Brandt,” adds Rubin. “With a show like that, if the core pursuit is having fun, you know it’s a game show, it’s about understanding who a person is, understanding what they care about and what matters. Maybe you want to be able to see them. So there’s a VOD aspect to that show where you’re going to be able to see it as you listen.”
At Blue Wire, the US-based sports podcast network, chief executive and founder Kevin Jones also leans on digital personality to build communities around a show.
Rather than pursuing established or traditionally trained journalists, Blue Wire seeks hosts with a loyal digital audience. Influencers with no professional background and as little as 10,000 followers are viewed as more viable than someone with the right qualifications but less social media standing.
“These people are actually out there talking to an audience,” says Jones. “Most of them have full time jobs or are kind of on the fringe of being in the media and are okay not going to games every single day - but their voices matter.”
Jones, however, is under no illusion that it takes work from the individual to make a successful show. He says podcasts flop when the host does not promote their show correctly, offer enough other commentary to spur interest, or record on inconsistent days.
“The people who want to be handed an audience are often the ones who sadly just aren't cut out for podcasting,” he says. “It’s an entrepreneurial commitment and a bet on yourself. Over time, enough people will care about the conversations you are having.”
Mallory Rubin (centre), editor-in-chief at The Ringer, which Spotify acquired in February
Finding the right voice for a show is also certainly important at The Ringer, but with a more intertwined approach to its podcast network and other digital content, the focus is less on finding an individual to foster an audience and more about striking the correct tone. Rubin says the company looks for a podcaster to be an “expert but with an approachable sensibility”, with authentic passion a vital asset.
“We want to bring top-tier analysis,” she says. “So when you fire up a sports pod - starting your day, or driving to work, washing the dishes, and you’ve got your headphones on - you want to better understand what you just saw unfold on the field, on the court, on the pitch.”
For the Anfield Wrap, which has a singular core focus for the majority of its output, the editorial ideology is about telling Liverpool’s story at source and providing an authentic voice.
“Ultimately if we are going to do a podcast after Liverpool played a match at Anfield for the immediate post-match show, we want to people to have been in the ground at Anfield,” says Atkinson. “They are the people who we want talking. They don’t have to be Liverpool voices far from it, but it is still has to be of the city and of the time.”
For all of the expertise and different strategies the podcast networks deploy, one near-universal - and fundamental - theme emerged from all of SportsPro’s conversations. It was perhaps best articulated by Rubin: “We don’t take it for granted that people have chosen to spend their time with us when they are listening to our shows. That’s a precious thing.”
This report, 'Casting a wide net', originally appeared in Issue 111 of SportsPro magazine. Click here to subscribe. You can find part one of this feature here.