7 February 2018 Issue 21 Feb/Mar

Muddy Knees and monetising podcasts

Last summer the trio behind the Guardian’s hugely successful football podcast suddenly quit to set up their own company. Can they prove podcasts can make money?

It’s a sign of how far podcasts have come. The departure of host, James Richardson, and producer, Ben Green, of the Guardian’s popular Football Weekly show ahead of the start of this football season created a social media storm as fans expressed shock and sadness.

The show’s key protagonists were jumping ship after 10 years.

Ad deals

Six months on and The Totally Football Show is already eclipsing the audience size of the Guardian’s podcast. Muddy Knees Media, the company behind the show co-founded by Richardson (pictured, top), Green and Football Weekly-regular Iain Macintosh (both pictured, below), has also signed three big advertising deals, with betting firms Paddy Power and William Hill, and launch advertiser, shaving startup Cornerstone.

A second podcast, The Totally Football League Show, covering the second tier of the English league, launched in September. Shows on Italian football, film and wrestling are also planned, with the idea that the flagship podcast will draw advertisers and listeners to the new ones.

Commercial winners

It appears a well-timed move. Around 4.7 million Brits have now listened to a podcast, and advertisers are getting behind the medium. In the US, the largest podcast market, £88m was spent on podcast advertising in 2016.

There has also been a swathe of successful specialist podcast companies launched, such as Gimlet, Panoply and Pineapple Street Media.

One of the main challenges for Muddy Knees was finding a way to stand out from the estimated 330,000 podcasts on iTunes. It is already jostling with shows from the likes of Sky, the BBC and TalkSport on iTunes’ sports podcasts chart. (Apple controls 60-70% of podcast traffic and remains the best signal of success.)

Live shows

Muddy Knees claims to have a listenership of 500,000 per episode. But advertising isn’t the only way it is turning its audience into income.

In early November, the company hosted its first Totally Football Live show, at the Glee Club, Birmingham. A second show in London followed a few weeks later, and the company has plans to host regular live events throughout 2018.

The formula is already proving successful for other podcasts such as My Dad Wrote A Porno, which toured Australia and the US last year.

Whether live or in a studio, Muddy Knees is building its business around sitting at a table, talking about football. Who knew that could be so popular?

The razor company that bet on Muddy Knees

A major breakthrough for Muddy Knees Media was landing its launch advertiser, Cornerstone.

The shaving startup was a regular sponsor on the Guardian’s Football Weekly show, but decided to switch to the new company. Cornerstone founder Oliver Bridge says being a startup made the risk possible: ‘We could take a gamble a big company couldn’t.’

Dubious claims

Startups dominate podcast advertising, with brands like Casper, Blue Apron, Squarespace and Harry’s (another razor startup) advertising prolifically in the US.

Traditional advertisers have been dubious of the claims on audience size and have struggled to imagine how their brands translate to the medium. Startups, however, often work directly with shows in a bid to get presenters to talk about their brands rather than insert a traditional radio advert.

Natural fit

Bridge says Cornerstone, which has sponsored 20 podcasts to date, prefers to meet the presenters for drinks and allows them to talk freely and make jokes about the brand and razors in a natural style on the show, rather than put out a one-size-fits-all advert.

While this form of ‘native advertising’ is favoured by startups, Bridge says it’s impossible to imagine a more corporate or traditional company such as Gillette allowing ‘maverick football fans to talk about their product’.

Gillette, as it happens, currently sponsors the Guardian’s Football Weekly.

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