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ESPN finds success turning 30 for 30 into a podcast experience

The folks behind ESPN’s 30 for 30 Podcast are still honing their approach and infrastructure, but if the first episode is any indication, the medium is a perfect marriage with the project.

I come this week in praise of ESPN. Major praise, in fact. Last week I found myself listening to the debut episode of ESPN Audio’s 30 for 30 Podcasts and was thrilled. The 55-minute premiere episode “The Trials of Dan and Dave” featured a rich examination of U.S. decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson and their memorable advertising campaign for Reebok prior to the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. The experience was so pleasurable that it reinforced once again why podcasting remains something all sports media outlets should bet on for the future. The medium is portable, on demand, intimate and crosses demographics. Let’s hope the ad money eventually flows.

Not every outlet can invest the resources that ESPN has here, but the investment has paid off in significant quality. The company also sold the heck out of the project— Mini, Blue Moon, Citi, Delta Air Lines, Blue Apron and ZipRecruiter are the presenting sponsors for the series. You can argue that if this kind of podcast succeeds in sports, there will be more to follow.

 “We started thinking of ideas for our first season last November,” said Jody Avirgan, the host and senior producer of the 30 for 30 Podcasts. “These first stories have been going for six to eight months. I think of the production process as much closer to a documentary film than what many people think of as a ‘podcast’—two people in a room talking about something. For these to feel like 30 for 30s, they need to be deeply reported, be drenched in archival, dozens of interviews. As we keep growing, I imagine some might take four months, and some might take years.”

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The ESPN executive who decided to greenlight Avirgan as the narrator made a wise decision. Had ESPN gone a more traditional route—using a well-known ESPN TV broadcaster—the podcast would feel too much like the rest of the network. Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight and previous worked in public radio. He has the right tone and sensibilities for this project. In an interview last week with, he said the first season of 30 for 30 Podcasts will feature five documentaries, coming out on five consecutive Tuesdays. Beyond that, ESPN Audio has five additional podcasts in various stages of production, some of which will debut in the second season and some beyond. “At the moment, we’re still getting our sea legs, both in terms of finding our creative approach, and building a production infrastructure,” Avirgan said.

On how the audio series came together, Avirgan said that FiveThirtyEight shares an New York-based office with ESPN Films and in early 2016, ESPN Films executives Connor Schell and Libby Geist reached out very informally to see if Avirgan (along with Ryan Nantell and Joe Fuentes, now with The Ringer) could help them imagine what 30 for 30 Podcasts might be.

“First, we thought about whether it would be possible to simply re-purpose the audio from the films, re-cut them, add some narration, maybe do a little re-reporting,” Avirgan said. “We tried that. It didn’t work. The amount of effort it would have taken made it clear that it’d be better to just start fresh and report out entirely original stories, which is the answer I was secretly wishing for all along. Then, Libby asked if I’d come on board to help do on the audio side what happens on the Films side—contact independent reporters or productions houses and outsource a bunch of stories. The catch, though, is that those independent producers don’t really exist in the podcast world. There are a couple popping up, but industry just isn’t there yet. It became clear that we’d have to actually report and produce these in-house, which is when we started to think about the structure, hire our team of producers and get our little shop in order. Libby was instrumental in setting up the structure, development producer Adam Neuhaus was key in helping us think through our initial stories, Tom Ricks has been the main ESPN Audio booster of this project and Nate Silver was kind enough to let me continue to host the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast while turning the majority of my attention to this new venture. For future seasons, I’m excited to go back to that model of outsourcing and project-managing a lot of independent reporters. At any given time, I’d love to have a few stories we are reporting in-house, and the majority of stories happening on the outside. Which is all to say: pitch us.”

The ESPN 30 for 30 Podcast group currently consists of a core of three producers (Rose Eveleth, Julia Lowrie Henderson, Andrew Mambo), two production assistants (Taylor Barfield, Kate McAuliffe) and Avirgan. They work closely with the ESPN Films team for editorial guidance, archival research, and navigating rights and clearances. The key question when it comes to a potential podcast topic is, “Does this feel like a 30 for 30?” Other considerations include whether the principal characters are good talkers, willing to invest hours with the producers to draw a deep portrait (both O’Brien and Johnson were particularly terrific here), and whether the subject is commercially viable. I asked Avirgan why he believed there was a market for longform storytelling podcasts in sports.

“I tried to find a dozen different ways to answer this without sounding like an awful cliché, but oh well: People like good stories,” said Avirgan. “That’s the most important thing. That said, ambitious podcasting has tended to come from the public radio DNA, and for some reason, that DNA has not tended to take sports seriously. It was a natural area that hadn’t been really mined, though I’m excited now to see that there are lots of other sports podcast ventures popping up. We’re trying to merge these two sensibilities—podcasting and 30 for 30. Naturally, the 30 for 30 approach has to be tweaked in order to work in audio. But I also really think that podcasting has plenty to learn from 30 for 30. One thing you hear a lot about 30 for 30 is ‘I don’t like sports, but I like 30 for 30.’ I love that. I want those people to listen to our podcast. But I also want to make sure that the core ESPN fans are excited about this too. I really think this can be a lot of people’s first podcast. Certainly for sports fans who think of podcasts as just sports talk, I’d love to get them listening to ambitious audio documentaries.”

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(Other outlets, including Sports Illustrated, have been experimenting with the form. Harry Swartout, a video and podcast producer at SI, produces one called The Narrative. Check it out here.)

ESPN measures its podcasts by downloads (though not publicly) and a spokesperson on Sunday said the information for “The Trials of Dan and Dave” was not immediately available. To give you some sense of the metrics for existing ESPN podcasts, last December The Dan LeBatard Show led all ESPN podcasts for the month with nearly 157,000 average downloads per episode, followed by Five Thirty Eight’s Politics Podcast at a little under 100,000. This will top those numbers.

Avirgan would not go into the specific cost to produce each podcast but it’s a six figure outlay given staff costs, travel, marketing and incidentals. ESPN Audio can keep costs down by using broadcast rights they own such as events that aired on ESPN or ABC. (For example, airing an old NCAA basketball tournament games on TV can run anywhere from $7,500 to $12,500 per minute depending on a negotiated price.) “You can’t do it on the cheap,” Avirgan said. “Audio production is fundamentally less costly than film simply because there’s less equipment, but if you’re going to do good journalism in any medium you need time, you need to travel, you need to research, you need to recruit top talent, you need editors, you need to pay for archival. That stuff costs real money, and I hope people start to realize that ambitious audio deserves ambitious backing.”

It may be coming. A recent study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau projected 2017 podcast ad revenues to climb 85% to $220 million, up from last year's $119 million. One caveat is that the study is funded by those who want podcasts to succeed.

“I don’t expect to really know what 30 for 30 Podcasts means for a long while, if ever,” Avirgan said. “These are our very first shows and we’re just as curious as anyone else to see what resonates with audiences and what feels satisfying to us. Obviously ESPN has some big advertisers on board, and the company is invested in every sense of the word. But from my perspective the only metric I’ve ever had in mind is ‘don’t take this beloved 30 for 30 brand and drive it into a ditch.’ I’d like to think we’re doing it justice.”

(SI examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the past week)

1. Quality work Friday night from NBA reporters Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst who were on the air from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. ET on various ESPN channels including ESPN2, and ESPNews. Same goes for SportsCenter anchor Kevin Connors who led the two reporters down some interesting discussions when the big news that night—Paul George being traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City—broke prior to the start of the free agency period.

1a. What happens when LeBron James uses your tweet to make a point to his social media followers? Well, your Twitter feed blows up. On Saturday afternoon San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion tweeted how much more the Warriors were worth in 2017 following the team’s 2009 drafting of Steph Curry. James followed by commenting on Killion’s on his feed. Wrote James:

Said Killion: “It was crazy.  I gained about 1,000 followers in one day. My timeline (I use Tweetdeck) was just spinning all day, people were having crazy arguments on my timeline independent of me, I saw a ton of hate toward players. When one of my colleagues tweeted, “Hey Ann, you got retweeted by the King, I joked that while LeBron was cool I really wanted to be retweeted by King George in Hamilton.  Lo and behold within an hour, he had retweeted me and said he was originally from Cleveland. So I had been retweeted by two kings from Cleveland. That was the highlight.”

2. Episode 126 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features writer James Andrew Miller, the best-selling author of books on CAA, ESPN and Saturday Night Live. In this podcast, we discuss the recent managerial moves made by ESPN President John Skipper including promoting Connor Schell to Exec VP/Content, where he will oversee all ESPN content creation on all platforms; what impact Schell will have internally and on viewers and readers and listeners; how Skipper set himself up to get a contract extension; why Schell, Justin Connolly and Burke Magnus are now in line to succeed Skipper; why ESPN digital head John Kosner and Exec VP/Global Business & Content Strategy Marie Donoghue are leaving the company; how the new management structure affects other top managers such as Rob King, Norby Williamson and Stephanie Druley; what the moves mean for employee morale; why the Mike Greenberg solo show has significant challenges; what plans are coming for the Greenberg show; whether the 6 p.m SportsCenter can make it long term; whether Bill Simmons, a longtime friend of Schell, will be impacted by the management moves; why the next two years will determine ESPN’s future for the next 15 years, and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

3. A media mailbag on whether Bill Simmons will return to ESPN, the future of sports writing and other topics.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• From Stephen Brunt of Sportsnet: At 150, Canada remains a hockey country.

• Longtime Bay Area columnist Mark Purdy said goodbye to newspaper column writing.

• A college football player thought he and a friend were going to meet up with two women. Instead, they were abducted and tortured for 40 hours—all because of a teammate. Harrowing story by Tisha Thompson and Andy Lockett of ESPN’s Outside The Lines.

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• From Sports Illustrated’s Brian Burnsed: Away from the NFL spotlight, financial ruin drove Clinton Portis to the brink of murder.

The Lost Prospects of Cuba, via ESPN The Magazine’s Scott Eden.

Newsday’s Neil Best on why so many sports fans hate sports announcers.

espnW had an oral history of the film A League Of Their Own.

• Jayson Jenks of The Seattle Times on the most famous 9-year-old runaway in the history of the Pacific Northwest. 

• From Stephen J. Nesbitt: Umpire John Tumpane saved a woman’s life on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Stephanie McCrummen of the Washington Post wrote a brilliant feature on a Muslim doctor who arrived in a rural Midwestern town and what happened post-election

• Via Masha Gessen of The New Yorker: The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge.

• Steven Johnson, writing for The New York Times Magazine, on sending messages to intelligent aliens and why some think it’s a dangerous idea

• Terrific piece by Diana Moskovitz of Deadspin on why copy editors are the soul of a journalism institution.

• Via The New Yorker’s James Lasdun: My Dentist’s Murder Trial.

• From Pro Publica’s Alex MacGillis: How a company targeted its new opiate-blocking drug to a captive market: drug courts.

• From Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker: The National Enquirer’s Fervor for Trump.

• From Fusion’s Joanna Suarez and Suzette Laboy: This is how hard it is to be an undocumented college student in America.

• From CJR: The slippery path between news and advertising at The New York Times.

• From Buzzfeed’s Rose Troup Buchanan: A Dad Asked People To Wish His Bullied Son Happy Birthday And The Internet Responded Perfectly

5. NBC will air a record 280 hours of live, primetime and encore coverage of the 104th Tour de France, across NBC, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports Gold and NBC Sports apps.

5a. A case to watch via A former NFL Films employee has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against NFL Films. The NFL, which owns NFL Films, told the outlet that the suit "has no merit” and they will vigorously defend these claims in court,

5b. Thanks to Robert Seidman of The World’s Fastest Growing Sports Media Podcast for the podcast invite.

5c.  Former ESPN host Prim Siripipat is taking another swing at pro tennis.

5d. NFL Media hired Tom Pelissero, a former USA Today writer, to contribute to NFL Network and

5e. An enjoyable interview of Steve Rushin by Jeff Pearlman.

5f. Company Man alert: Sports Illustrated has a new vertical, SI Eats, which will examine the nexus of food and sports. A few of the pieces SI already has in the works: a city-by-city eating guide from Andy Staples; a roundup of the best (and weirdest) MLB ballpark food; a profile on a 70-year-old competitive eater; a video on what food NBA draft prospects would take No. 1 in a food draft; and more. The section can be found here and follow along on Twitter.

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5g. Some info on FOX’s upcoming coverage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

5h.The Sports Spectrum Podcast interviewed Olympian Ryan Hall on he and his wife adopting four Ethiopian girls.

5i. Particularly egregious story here of Fox Sports laying off social media specialist Tyson Winter 27 hours after telling him his job was safe.

5j. NBC’s track expert Ato Boldon is serving as an Alice-In-Wonderland reporter for the network’s NASCAR coverage. Here’s his first working trip at Daytona.

5k. Pretty cool story here: Tiffany Brando, the eldest daughter of Fox Sports broadcaster Tim Brando, recently gave birth to her first child, and she and her husband, Russell Crews, decided they would name the baby Spencer after her father’s longtime partner, Spencer Tillman. “Tiff met Spencer when she was 14, and he has always been someone she truly admired,” Tim Brando said in an email. “He began at CBS with me in ‘98-99 season. She's always called him Uncle Spence. His daughters (he has four) and wife Rita are very tight with my girls Tara and Tiffany. I don't know if anything like this between families has ever happened with broadcast partners. My grandson’s full name is Spencer Brando Crews. Sounds like a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, don't ya think?”