Why Daily Sports Podcasts Are a Hit

Mina Kimes by Juan Ocampo
Mina Kimes by Juan Ocampo

ESPN and The Athletic are watching what works for news orgs and applying it to their field.

When The New York Times debuted The Daily, the news organization's five-day-a-week podcast that dives into a major story and promises to make you a more informed citizen in 30 minutes or less, it seemed inevitable that other media organizations would soon follow—and they did. The Washington Post's The Post Reports, NPR's Up First, and Vox's Today, Explained quickly appeared.

It was only a matter of time before sports coverage got in the game, so to speak. This past fall saw the debut of two daily sports podcasts. The Lead is a partnership between podcast network Wondery and The Athletic, a paywalled site that promises “smarter coverage for die-hard fans;” and ESPN Daily is a new venture from the sports powerhouse.

The right move at the right time

For ESPN Daily host Mina Kimes—a seasoned writer and analyst for the network—stepping up a daily cadence allowed them to address a need. While ESPN has many podcast offerings, they had previously been weekly and mostly specific to a single sport—a marked difference from what the ESPN Daily team is hoping to achieve.

“We’ve been talking about {this} for quite some time now as a company,” Kimes says. “{We’d} been discussing the notion for a while that while we have a lot of sports- and personality-specific podcasts, we wanted to do something that was more wide-ranging and frequent. Something that would appeal to both the hardcore and the casual sports fan, and also something that leveraged all of our talent across the network.”

The resulting program integrates interviews with ESPN experts, audio collected by reporters on the road, and game calls. Each episode also takes a deep dive into a new “big story,” agnostic of team or sport. “Big could mean a lot of things,” senior editorial producer Eve Troeh notes. “It could mean breaking, it could mean something that’s in the headlines that day. It could mean big in that it stems from an investigation here at ESPN. It could mean big in that it’s a complicated topic that sports fans or any general audience might want to understand more to kind of get below the headlines.”

The Lead takes a similar approach. “The Lead is unique even within the ecosystem of The Athletic, in that we’re the only podcast that is not behind a paywall,” notes cohost Kavitha Davidson. “I think part of the philosophy is highlighting and showcasing some of the incredible stories that are behind the paywall to listeners who may not have subscribed yet, and also amplifying those stories to already existing subscribers who might only be subscribed because they’re fans of {a specific team} and their local beat reporter came over to The Athletic, but they might not have a broader awareness of everything we do.”

While existing subscribers to The Athletic take advantage of the strong local coverage the site provides, The Lead’s approach is purposefully broad. “If you look at the landscape of sports journalism and sports podcasts in particular, they’re hyper-specific, usually; they’re focused on one sport, or they’re focused on one team, or they’re focused on one city,” explains Anders Kelto, The Lead's cohost and executive producer. “And what we’re doing is kind of a catchall—we’re trying to find the best stories from all the sports and all the cities and all leagues at all levels, just finding the best stories and then telling them in a way that appeals to everyone.”

Sharing space while making distinctions

Daily sports podcasts have a lot in common with their hard-news-oriented brethren, but not everything. “I have friends that work on other daily news shows and I think the challenges are very similar,” Kelto says. Though sports are often thought of as a form of entertainment, the teams behind the shows take the subject matter seriously. “We take a lot of care in planning for the interviews, doing research, collecting archival sounds, getting music,” Kelto says. “These are really highly produced, and there’s a lot of heavy lifting that goes on behind the scenes to make it sound effortless. And that’s the same on any daily news show.”

For Troeh, the somewhat predictable sports calendar—the beginning and end of seasons and the dates and locations of major events are often known well in advance—marks a departure from her previous career of standard news reporting. “When you talk about a sports podcast versus a news podcast on a daily level, you know, sports has its own calendar in terms of the seasons,” she says. “But I wouldn’t mistake that for knowing what the news is going to be. You know where there’s likely to be action on any given day because of what’s going on the sports calendar. But there’s still a ton of surprises and curveballs,” she notes.

Those surprises and curveballs can add a bit more entertainment to the program. “Sports is really fun, I think,” Kimes says. “It is a real source of escape for a lot of people. And I think it gives us more latitude to show a bit of personality that you might not always get with the news. You certainly don’t get it as frequently with the news.”

Davidson agrees. “I think that for a show like {The Daily}, there’s a sense of, I guess, civic duty to tune in and learn about what’s happening in the world, to be an informed citizen and that kind of thing. It’s your broccoli," she says. "And sports are fun. Sports are the cake. So I think the challenge versus a news show is convincing sports fans and general listeners that what they’re going to hear that day still does add value.”

—Katie Ferguson