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At Large | Podcasts have been background noise in sport but a real change is audible

With LeBron James' SpringHill Company part of the latest sports-related move into big-money podcasts, audio and voice strategies are about to create a whole new set of possibilities for the industries.

29 October 2020 Eoin Connolly
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2020 has been a big news kind of year, but one also dense in little personal adaptations.

That is all part of where change comes from and how it is felt: large-scale interventions at the top and smaller shifts in behaviour everywhere else. Those working in the business of crowds must be cognisant of both. 

This was something that felt apparent last week while watching SportsPro Asia – the coverage and production of which pre-empted this column, or at least my hopes of finding time to write it, last week. Local and international sports organisations trying to expand across the world’s largest continent can find themselves riding some powerful geopolitical currents, but they are also factoring in the effects of different social media ecosystems, or the implications of mobile gaming and payment networks. 

And it was also something that came to mind a few days ago when reading that The SpringHill Company, the production studio owned by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, has signed a multi-project development deal with Audible, the audiobook and podcast service owned by Amazon.

Podcasts have been having a bit of a moment and as with so much else right now, it can be really hard to tell just how long it’s been going on. The medium has been around since the mid-2000s and has risen steadily in prominence over the past few years. The market is growing. More people are listening to podcasts and more people, most definitely, are making them: the number of podcast series in the Apple library has almost doubled in three years, from 550,000 in 2018, according to a statement at its WWDC event, to over 1.5 million today, according to YouGov. 

The question for the media industry had long been what to make of them, yet this is now a sector being taken much more seriously. The big audio streaming players are investing with purpose, as Audible and Spotify – which spent close to US$200 million in February on The Ringer, the sports and entertainment outlet founded by former ESPN executive Bill Simmons – latch on to podcasts as a way of keeping subscribers attached to their platforms. 

As SportsPro digital editor Tom Bassam has explored in the latest edition of the magazine, the podcast space is maturing in ways that are of real interest to the sports industry – particularly as it moves from rights trading towards a more direct-to-consumer approach.

Some of that has to do with content production. The SpringHill deal will initially deliver a series called ‘More Than A Vote: Our Voices. Our Vote’, which is being pitched as an educational deep dive into the real history of voting in America using interviews, archival audio and song. Audio storytelling is becoming more ambitious at a point where sports storytelling, through strands like documentary filmmaking, is also coming of age.

But there is something else going on. Podcasting is probably at the point now that blogging had reached by the time podcasts became a thing, if you can follow that line of thought. That is to say, realistically, the barrier to entry is still low but it is much harder than it was for unbacked outsiders to make an outsized impact.

Nevertheless, podcasts are often about niches – taking niche interests far and wide or carving niche audiences out of very big ones. At the time of writing, the number seven podcast on Apple’s charts in the sports category is ‘Quickly, Kevin: Will He Score?’, a comedy show about English soccer in the 90s. Difficult one to describe, that, but if you get the reference, and it draws a wince and a smile at the same time, it might be your thing. The point is, it starts from a very broad base before burrowing into narrower sensibilities. 

In any case, the model for programmes like that is community-building; niche interests look a lot like personal interests, and the conversational nature of podcasts lends a much-identified air of intimacy. Ticketed events – even virtual ones – and merchandising are all in play.

That is in part because advertising strategies have tended to be more scattershot. On the one hand, audio can provide flexibility for media buyers, with radio-style spots, ‘live reads’ by presenters and more sophisticated sponsored segments all options. On the other, the open-source distribution of podcasts comes with more limited audience measurement and targeting than other digital media. Survey data can play as much of a role as tracking data, and sales techniques are a little more analogue as a result. 

In the specialist and B2B space, the subject matter and the publisher’s other activities give prospective advertisers a good idea of who will be listening – hello from the host of the SportsPro Podcast. When it comes to general interest and entertainment, scale becomes a bigger factor. The trouble there is that while podcasting in general is popular – Infinite Dial estimates that 104 million people listen to podcasts each month in the US alone – the aforementioned breadth of choice is massive. 

Relative to TV and radio programming, most audiences are still small so publishers often use aggregation to generate scale. The programme makers and hosts are relied upon to differentiate the message and connect with the listener. Yet with many advertisers still dependent on top-line information about podcast audiences in general, that listener is hearing a lot from the same small cohort of brands: familiar sells for mattresses, razors and fastening recruitment.

Of course, when companies like Amazon and Spotify spend hundreds of millions on content, you can expect those strategies to develop. They will be counting on the idea that by keeping listeners on their platforms, they can develop more granular data about audience identities and tendencies.

But this is also where we come back to the idea of big interventions at the top, and small changes in individual behaviour. The leading tech companies are now planning for a world beyond the smartphone as the dominant personal interface. The expectation, though, is that this will not involve the substitution of one device for another, but the gradual accretion of unobtrusive devices all around the user. Smart speakers and wireless headphones – the latter of which are increasingly part of a more practically capable category called ‘hearables’ – are at the vanguard of this disintermediation, along with wearable devices like smartwatches. 

Active voice search is the foundational idea in all of this because speaking is more intuitive than typing and swiping. That, however, will demand something of a reset in how people interact with technology. For one thing, where the last generation grew used to consuming media on communications devices, the next will be using media devices and other appliances to communicate. And more plainly, security concerns notwithstanding, people are not used to talking to machines. 

Incentivising those connections will be the key to making that happen and podcasts could have a valuable role to play. As well as intimacy and long periods of engagement, they offer content that is rich in information. If listeners can learn to ask Siri, Alexa, or their Google Assistant to follow up on a factoid, find out more about a guest or – who are we kidding here – buy a product, that would be a very useful thing indeed for a lot of companies. If publishers can get more specific data about listening habits, they can also apply that to scripting and the arrangement of prompts. 

So podcasts, and audio in general, have short and medium-term strategic uses for sport. Right now, they offer another direct route to fans, another source of commercial inventory and, for brands, a more compelling vessel for campaigns. Rights holders might be more interested in what comes next.

Speaking in June on the Unofficial Partner podcast, Sophie Hind, managing director of voice technology specialist Voiceworks, made a cogent argument for the possibilities of audio engagement and voice search. Media consumption and at-home uses are already a part of this but, in time, you could imagine fans using voice commands to order food and beverages from their seats. Teams could provide aural venue histories or wayfinding; spectators could get in-game information without looking away from the action. 

There are lots of possibilities, all of which will take investment in content and the 'skills' that help digital assistants communicate. It will also mean a shift in focus on audio, from incidental to fundamental. That will come as sport recentres itself around the individual supporter. Big interventions and small changes – listen out for both.    

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