How Sports Podcasts Have Adapted

Roger Bennett with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Photo Courtesy of Men in Blazers
Roger Bennett with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Photo Courtesy of Men in Blazers

With actual athletic events at a standstill, these creators have found new ways to connect with their audiences.

Sports as we knew them came to a grinding halt the week of March 8. That was when the NBA announced it was suspending its season due to the coronavirus pandemic; it simply wasn’t safe for players, fans, or staff to gather anymore. That week, the NHL suspended its hockey competitions, and the NCAA announced that it was canceling its annual basketball tournament known as March Madness. Around the same time, European soccer leagues suspended their seasons and Major League Baseball announced that it wouldn’t open on opening day after all, leaving fans around the world with nothing to watch, no teams to cheer for, and no imminent resolution to the seasons that were well underway.

While sports fans and teams were reeling, sports podcasts were facing an equally uncertain future. If there were no athletic competitions taking place, where did that leave them?

At The Ringer, shows have adapted to the moment in a variety of ways. “Podcasts like The NBA Show and The Bill Simmons Podcast have reported on how and when the leagues will return to play,” says The Ringer’s Head of Production Julie Litman. “And series like The Draftables on Bill’s podcast and Book of Basketball 2.0 have leveraged nostalgia for the sports we miss.”

Thanks to quick action, self-reflection, and a willingness to really listen to what their audiences wanted and needed during lockdown, other sports podcasts are also continuing to deliver thoughtful, engaging content despite the fact there are almost no live contests happening.

Widening the lens

For soccer fans, the European leagues tried a game or two with teams playing in empty stadiums, before realizing players, coaches, and staff were still at risk and quickly changed course, suspending all play. “When it happened, it happened really fast,” says Tom Middler of The Other Bundesliga, a podcast dedicated to Austrian soccer. “We have not had a ball kicked since, but we have to try and soldier on with the podcast.”

They got the first taste of how things had to change when a much-anticipated game between a small Austrian team and England’s Premier League behemoth Manchester United was canceled. The game was a major focal point for Austrian fans and the podcast had been building up to it for weeks—and then suddenly the game was canceled. “We had to think of some new ways pretty quickly to keep going,” Middler says.

For the first week, The Other Bundesliga reported on the sudden upheaval in the world of sports. Then they had to get creative. “We started to look for things which we'd had in the pipeline, which were a little less time-sensitive, things like historical look-backs,” Middler explains. They focused on big games, famous teams playing famous seasons, and World Cup matches—anything that fit in with their mission of promoting Austrian football. “We really didn't want to create content just for the sake of it,” he says.

The Bundesliga team were unsure whether their audience would appreciate their efforts, but it turns out they did. “People have really engaged with it. We've managed to have a big growth, a big steady increase of Twitter followers and Instagram followers and stuff even without [soccer] going on,” says Middler.

A new analytical focus

The hosts of feminist sports show Burn It All Down was similarly stunned when they realized the WNBA season was canceled, the NCAA final was not taking place, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were not happening as scheduled. While the sudden change was disorienting, after a little reflection, the team realized that they could still put on their show.

“The beauty of the structure of our show is that despite the fact that there are no sports happening, there's so much stuff that we get to criticize or look at through a critical lens,” says Toronto-based Shireen Ahmed, one of five co-hosts of the show. Once they recognized they could continue even in the absence of live sports, in recent episodes the Burn It All Down team have talked about legislation that bars transgender athletes from participating in school sports, Colin Kaepernick and NFL free agency, sexism in women’s soccer leagues, and the WNBA draft.

Ahmed points out they have also discovered that with everyone hunkering down at home, people generally have more time to talk: “Suddenly every athlete is available, and is reaching back out to us.” The show has filled its feed with conversations with a college basketball up-and-comer, a fencer, a handful of authors, a cultural anthropologist who discussed the impact of COVID-19 on sports, and many others. While the hosts are disappointed about the rescheduled Olympics, the missed March Madness, and the fact that they can’t meet up in real life until the pandemic ends, Ahmed at least is enjoying the fact that they can all take part in each episode. “We're a little rowdy every Sunday because all of us are there,” she says, although she tries to keep it down as she has to record covered in a blanket to muffle the sounds of her four teenagers.

Becoming the common ground

That’s something that Men in Blazers host Roger Bennett can relate to. Right after the shelter-in-place orders became nearly ubiquitous, Bennett resorted to recording in his wife’s closet in his very chaotic New York City apartment. “I’ve got four kids charging around,” he says, laughing. “They say that a podcaster's greatest gift is silence, and it's really hard to bloody find.”

While The Other Bundesliga focuses on Austrian soccer, Men in Blazers takes a more universal approach to the sport, so their attention simply shifted when the games vanished from the schedule in Europe and the U.S. “Honestly," says Bennett, "we found out how many of our listeners never watch a lick of [soccer] and just listen to Men in Blazers.”

One thing that Bennett and his team realized is that their fans weren’t there for sports analysis (“There are much better tacticians than us,” he says) but for the emotions the hosts bring. “I always joke that at the end of the day, sport in general allows me to feel things that normal people feel in real life but I’m too dead inside to experience,” he jokes. “So we were able to pivot very quickly because all we've been talking about is dreams, fears, joy, nightmares, wonder, uncertainty. We've talked about making memories and never taking anything for granted for years, and that's what people want to talk about it in the here and now.”

In short, while there were no sports, there was a place for a podcast that brought people together, so that’s what Men in Blazers gave them. “I always want my audience to feel better after engaging with our content, whatever it is,” Bennett says.

Their transition from a sports podcast to a community-oriented talk show was fairly seamless, as they had already been developing a call-in show. In the days before the show’s staff scattered around the country to shelter in place with family, Bennett and his producer Jonathan Williamson mapped out a plan to turn their twice-a-week podcast and newsletter into a five-times-a-week show and newsletter and scheduling virtual happy hours with their audience and special guests on Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s a lot of work, but they wanted to be there for their fans as a steady voice in times of uncertainty and chaos.

Listeners have really appreciated his efforts, with fan engagement reportedly through the roof and the Men in Blazers mailbox overflowing as fans call in to share their stories, thoughts, and insights. “In terms of our audience and our connection, it's really been a very humbling, deeply powerful six weeks.”

—Melissa Locker