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The Unlikely Rise of a Cult-Hit Sports Media Podcast

Steve Bennett’s struggle with a debilitating illness led him to create “The Sports-Casters.”

The phone was ringing and Steve Bennett felt his pulse quicken, his sweat glands activate. Here he was in his hometown of Buffalo, age 30, but feeling like an apprehensive teenager. He had arranged this phone date with a sense of casual, why-the-hell-not? shot-shooting. But now, headphones wrapped around his ears, Bennett was confronting the reality that this assignation was actually happening.

It was 2010 and Bennett was in rough shape, his body in a state of fierce revolt. It had started in college seven years earlier. He was interrupted from a game of Madden by what he figured was a bad stomachache. It was far worse. He was diagnosed with a ruptured appendix and Crohn’s disease; and soon he was undergoing the first in a series of bowel resection surgeries, doctors paring down his intestine as if it were a roster after training camp. After graduation, he went to work as a teacher and social worker at his old Buffalo grammar school. But holding down a full-time job was proving difficult with such a fragile and uncooperative GI tract. So much so that, before long, he went on SSDI—social security disability insurance—a backstop hardly intended for 30-year-olds who’d recently been playing hockey—unsure if he would ever be sufficiently healthy to hold down another conventional job.

Bennett at the mic, with his daughter.

Bennett at the mic, with his daughter.

To fend off depression and, as he puts it, “not be a guy who’s just home watching Price Is Right,” Bennett turned his attention to sports, especially conversations about sports. As a Syracuse freshman full of health and optimism, he’d held designs, he says, “of becoming the next Bob Costas.” That, sadly, wasn’t going to happen now. But maybe he could be the homebound version, inverting the model and talking to Costas and his media colleagues about covering sports. And since he couldn’t travel and wasn’t on the radio, he resorted to this newfangled medium: the podcast. His audience, initially anyway, might not extend much beyond a tight circle of friends and family. But podcasting was cheap and easy to learn and pretty damn fun. And it sure as hell beat doing nothing.

A gluttonous reader of sports books, Bennett, in late ’10, plowed through Death to the BCS, by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan. Apart from indicting big-time college sports and the cynical canard of amateurism, the book tidily summed up the many flaws of the system for determining a college football champion. Bennett found it engaging and invited Passan—now at ESPN, then a sportswriter at Yahoo—on his yet-to-be-christened podcast. He was pleasantly surprised when Passan, gamely, said yes. And then nearly frozen when Passan picked up at the appointed time for a conversation—a conversation Bennett was tasked with guiding.

When the episode begins, Bennett, joined by a buddy and cohost, Don Russ, is unmistakably, excruciatingly nervous. But with the help of Passan’s poise and patience, you literally hear in real time as Bennett’s nerves settle and his confidence thickens. By the end he’s leading a lively and informative conversation, a two-guys-at-the-bar exchange. The episode posted a few days later, right around the time Auburn beat Oregon in the 2011 National Championship Game. Says Bennett: “I always joke that Cam Newton had a good week. But he couldn’t have been happier than I was. Getting that podcast up meant everything to me.”

As it turned out, this would mark the first podcast of The Sports-Casters, a weekly(ish, health permitting) conversation between Bennett and a figure from sports media. A decade on, The Sports-Casters persists. Last month, Bennett hosted his 333rd episode, consecrating the 10-year anniversary of an unlikely cult hit.

Bennett’s health remains temperamental at best. But his podcast has been steady. While his listenership might be modest (he estimates generally 2,000 downloads a week but sometimes more than 5,000), his roster of guests rivals those of any other sports media podcast. Joe Buck regaled Bennett with a story about Kate Hudson’s sneaking into the Fox booth during a game. Mike Tirico shared career advice and recollections about Steve Gleason’s punt block. John Smoltz talked about transitioning from pitching to broadcasting. Before his death, the venerable writer Frank Deford offered a wide range of strikingly personal recollections.

Immediately before leaving his Miami hotel room to cover the NBA Finals, Lee Jenkins, then Sports Illustrated’s esteemed basketball correspondent, once spent 90 minutes talking hoops on The Sports-Casters. It was one of Jenkins’s twenty appearances on the podcast, making him the show’s equivalent of Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. Author Jeff Pearlman is second, with 18. (Full disclosure: Per Bennett’s records, I have made a dozen appearances starting in ’11.) “I have this joke,” says Bennett, “Who regrets giving me their cell phone [number] the most?

Bennett is not the person you want to encounter if you have somewhere to be. In a lilting voice, flecked with an upstate New York accent, he takes his time unfurling questions, setting up conversations that snake in unpredictable directions and can exceed two hours. Reflexively self-effacing, he has a habit of starting a question, scolding himself—“I don’t know what I’m trying to say”—and then recasting. He will ask what he vows is a last question, to only follow it up with “one last thing,” and then throw in another “before I let you get outta here.”

And The Sports-Casters is not what you’d call polished. Passan described the podcast as a kind of audio Wayne’s World, a DIY media project that offers little in the way of editing or production. Bennett’s four-year-old daughter, Paula, makes appearances. Sometimes you can hear guests multitasking—clanging dishes, gassing up cars, boarding planes—as they speak. Even the awkward hyphen in the name, bifurcating Sports and Casters is sand in the SEO gears, a complication to finding the podcast on Spotify.

But the minimalist, indie-band feel is part of the appeal, and ultimately the success. Precisely because Bennett is not the slick, practiced host facing time constraints, his subjects tend to open up valves of candor. Bennett is so unassuming; he is able to excavate topics and gently guide subjects to places they might not otherwise be inclined to go. Bennett does not otherwise work in sports media, so his firm grasp of the mechanics of the industry makes him all the more endearing to the guests.

Early on Bennett made a few observations. First, social media was his friend, a way to connect with his potential guests and get a foot in the door, even while marooned at home. A quick DM on Twitter, and suddenly he was communicating with (and accumulating the contact info of) writers he had only read and broadcasters he had only heard. He recalls that he had barely launched for a month when he was in a conversation with Joe Posnanski, then of SI and then the country’s Sports Writer of the Year, as named by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. A few weeks after that, he was speaking with the estimable NFL writer Peter King. “Peter said he would do it, but he didn’t even know what a podcast was. ‘What are we doing? Is this video? What do I have to do? You have to tell me more.’ ” (Within a few years, of course, King was hosting his own successful NFL podcast.)

Bennett also came to realize quickly that while athletes can be uncomfortable, reticent or prone to cliché, not so the people who cover them. Almost by definition, media types like to talk. Especially when they are plugging books or shows or columns. And all the more so when the hosts differentiate themselves with personal research. When Bennett invites authors on the podcast, he reads their book in advance. When he invites broadcasters, he references the deep cuts of games they’ve called. Other times he will pipe in the fight song of a guest’s alma mater as he introduces them. It’s a small touch, but it’s all in service of showing that he’s done his homework.

What’s more, Bennett, rightly, came to the conclusion that sports media is a sector populated (mostly) with thoroughly decent people; that, overall, soft hearts prevail over sharp elbows. Given that the job is predicated on asking athletes and coaches and subjects for their time and candor, it seems only fair that media members give theirs when asked. “Ninety-nine percent of the people,” he says, “have treated me with amazing respect.”

Bennett starts meandering into a story about one of the few times over the last decade that he felt shabbily treated. He says that one college basketball writer blew him off at first and then repeatedly scheduled interviews only to cancel, time after time, at the last minute. To Bennett it felt like hazing or bullying. But mid-anecdote, he stops himself. “I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus,” he says, “overall my experiences have been amazing.”

He’s happier discussing the few flashes of fame that have come his way. In ’13, he went through a rough stretch and spent six weeks in the hospital with more GI complications, this time a colon reconstruction. He spoke to his brother Anthony Day, a sophomore hockey player at Yale, and they made a pact. Anthony would make sure to play well enough that Yale would reach the Frozen Four; Steve would be sure to get better by then and show up in person.

Each kept up his end. Steve was discharged just in time to join other family members at the Penguins’ arena in Pittsburgh and watch Yale win the NCAA title. After a weekend spent cheering and tearing, Bennett posted a photo of himself flanked by his brothers. Richard Deitsch—then an SI writer and a Sports-Casters veteran aware of Bennett’s backstory—reposted the photo, inviting other followers to post images of the single happiest moment of their lives. The campaign, catalyzed by Bennett, went viral and suddenly his photo was being aired on CNN and the CBS Evening News.

That same year, Bennett entertained a rare athlete guest, Malcolm Kelly, wide receiver for the Washington NFL Team. No doubt lulled by the podcast’s unassuming and casual vibe, Kelly used the occasion to disparage the organization, its handling of Robert Griffin III and the training staff whose loyalties resided with the team and not the individual injured players. (“I wish more people had heard that one,” Bennett says wistfully.) Sean McDonough, then ESPN’s Monday Night Football play-by-play voice, used an appearance in 2016 on The Sports-Casters to (again) rail against NFL officiating. That made some news. In 2012, Bennett interviewed Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses, then a guest ESPN columnist. The podcast happened to post the day the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced it would induct GNR, and the unexpected downloads exceeded the Sports-Casters’ bandwidth.

Like an athlete climbing the depth chart, Bennett says he still has levels he’d like to reach. Apart from lacking the auditory bells and whistles, The Sports-Casters is also bereft of the usual read-throughs for Casper mattresses or ZipRecruiter or SimpliSafe or any of the other familiar podcast sponsors. With a mix of gratitude and pride, Bennett reports that his wife, Tammy, an administrator at a Buffalo nonprofit, is the family breadwinner. But, yes, if Sports-Casters spat off some revenue, it would be nice.

He also has a sizable wish list of guests he’d like to host. Jim Nantz. Bill Simmons. A Saints fan, Bennett is holding out hope for a session with the recently retired Drew Brees, who now has plenty of time on his hands. Getting anyone from Pearl Jam—a band he’s seen more than a dozen times—would be great, but especially guitarist Mike McCready, since he, too, has Crohn’s. And now that Jenkins has left sports media to work in the front office for the Clippers, maybe it’s time to have him back on. “I do,” Bennett realizes aloud, “still have his cell number.”

Bennett with his family.

Bennett with his family.

But again, he catches himself before it might appear that his ambition outpaces his gratitude. And when he says he’s just happy to be here, he means it. As bad as the year 2020 was, being exiled at home wasn’t anything new to him. And it sure beat ’19, when he underwent three serious surgeries in the span of 289 days, spending huge swaths of time in the hospital, away from his wife, his daughter and his podcast. Bennett recently celebrated his 40th birthday. Playing back his 30s, he admits, “There have been a couple of times when I wasn’t sure I would make it … with bowel resectioning, they take out so much bad stuff you feel better. But you don’t know if it’s for 30 years or three months. Am I getting closer to a permanent colostomy bag?”

He explained all this as we spoke for this story, a bit of role reversal whereby Bennett went from asking questions to answering them. He acquitted himself well—the equivalent of a model podcast guest—all poise and companionable conversation.

But then Bennett was asked what the podcast has meant to him and his voice caught. “It’s given me purpose—and there were times when I felt like I didn’t have one,” he says. “And it’s made people I care about proud of me, you know? I grind through. With my health I don’t want to concern people. People have their own s---. I’m always like, ‘I’m O.K. I’m O.K. I’m O.K.’ And sometimes I’m not. And this has been here, you know?”

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