The Future of Sports Audio in 2020

Sport has always been an interesting barometer of change.

In the past, it has been considered a forebear of social change or reflection of society. It is also often an area in which new technologies are put through their paces before being delivered to a wider audience (3D TV, HD etc...).

What happens on the pitch today will happen in other markets tomorrow.

Here, I'm going to take a look at the changing landscape of sports audio over the next 12 months and make some predictions as to how the space will change.

In recent years the developments in both Sports broadcasting and Audio has been fast-paced and large scale. 2020 doesn't look like it will be bucking that trend with clear implications to within sports audio and beyond.

1. UK Sports Podcasting will BOOM

It's widely expected that podcasting in the UK will grow substantially over the next 12 months and beyond. If we look at the US market in comparison it shows that there is considerable room for growth both in terms of audience and monetization. It would be reasonable to expect UK podcasting to follow suit.

Sport has always been an important genre for podcasting as a whole so any growth across the market will naturally filter through and be reflected within the genre.

Spotify's ambitions in Podcasting will grow audience

A concerted effort from Spotify to grow the podcasting portion of their business will help to drive audience and provide opportunities for all, which could lead to two key developments:

The rise of the Niche Sports podcast

Firstly, there will be a turf war for "ear time". The world only needs so many podcasts with groups of fans discussing the week's news around a kitchen table, and the more crowded that space becomes, the more important it will become for new shows to carve out their own unique niche.

"Niche podcasts that truly add value will also survive and do well, but reheated Joe Rogan imitators… that shit is going to fall off the face of a cliff.” - Scott Galloway (Prof of Marketing at NYU Stern)

The podcast world has always rewarded the niche and 2020 could see that reward get even larger. The idea being that an incredibly narrow focus can find a large audience on a global scale has proved to be true time and time again and I expect to see even more niches being explored within Sports. Not only will new shows launch to cover minority sports but I see e-sports coverage as a massive growth area.

Also, as local radio services in the UK reduce favour of national services more local sports fans could turn to podcasting as a way to follow their local sports teams.

More big brands will join the market

Secondly, with more money available in the sector Podcast could start to attract bigger brands and broadcasters to the space.

We've already seen Sports broadcasters like ITV (Flats and Shanks) and Sky Sports (the Gary Neville podcast) dip a toe in the podcasting pool and the likes of Amazon Prime, YouTube and Facebook (who have demonstrated an interest in sports and who have a huge platform for potential promotion) could begin to explore this area and see considerable success.

Newly created Podcasts that complement their existing services will create added value for their audiences and deepen engagement but also, for broadcasters in particular, podcasting could provide a new platform for existing betting partners with regulations surrounding promoting gambling on television tightening.

“As audiences grow - bigger and bigger brands will flood podcasting with marketing buys and will realize what direct response brands have known for almost a decade now: Podcast ads drive some of the best results in marketing, period.”

— Conal Byrne, iHeartMedia

2. Sports Audio Will Get Shorter

There are a few factors that could lead to us seeing growth in "bite-sized" podcasts and shorter form audio products in general.

Podcasts are no longer the freeform, long-haul listen they once were. Whilst there are still plenty of epic-length shows available on the market there has also been a rise in the number of shorter form shows available. In some part this is due to a level of professionalism arriving in podcasting (and more consideration as to what content makes the cut) but you could probably attribute it more to new shows finding the gaps in the market that are not yet occupied.

The Smart Speaker Effect

Smart Speakers will further influence the length of the audio content consumed on demand. Whilst podcasts are traditionally an indulgent solo listen and something that can accompany the consumer wherever they go. Listening via Smart Speakers is often a communal activity and one that is very much fixed to a single location. This type of listening is far more suited to shorter form content but the current size of the Smart Speaker audience probably isn't big enough right now to influence a marked change in behaviour. We know that many users consume News and Sports content via their Smart Speakers and Audio Assistants and yet currently, the audio offering here is very poor. Bite-sized, news-based audio could see real growth as the Smart Speaker market also grows.

“With the rise of wireless headphones and connected speakers, listening is more frictionless than ever, even outside the car. As a result, we will see more casual audio consumption and content creation, including shorter-form content that’s easy to consume while running a quick errand or waiting in line.”— Zack Reneau-Wedeen, Founder and Head of Product, Google Podcasts

Spotify users listening habits will have an impact

Spotify's entrance into the podcasting market could also have a marked effect on podcast length.

The streaming service has big aspirations in Podcasting for 2020, looking to dramatically increase its share (suggestions are they could grab 25% of audience share this year). This could in itself attract a whole new, younger audience to podcasting and one that could dramatically change behaviour. Spotify users are used to consuming shorter form audio content and could demand similar from their podcasts.

"The different ways that people listen to things on Spotify will also change the nature of podcasts. More short, 5–10 minute pods. More short-run series. More focus on individual episodes (versus episode feeds) in podcast playlists. Much the way that Spotify has upended the music industry, they’re going to do the same for podcasts, for better or worse.” — Chris Oke, CBC Podcasts team

Sports audio will need to react quicker

Speed of reaction could also be a factor that leads to a rise in shorter form content.

Last years report from Media Chain "Social Trends for Sports Fans and Brands" showed how young sports fans, consuming sports content via social media, are more willing to sacrifice quality for speed and I would expect to see a similar change in priority for younger audio consumers.

New media consumers across the board and used to hearing and seeing the content they want when they want rather than waiting for a traditional broadcast (think Netflix vs TV). On-demand sports audio will likely follow that trend in 2020 with a new brand of podcast that sacrifices high productions values for speed of reaction. Short-from content that reacts within minutes of a major sporting event could not only act as a complementary product to something longer-form but could well become a podcast genre all of its own.

Podcasts and other on-demand audio that offers quick to react, short, sharp content that becomes equally part of the news landscape as the entertainment one and would be perfectly suited to new younger listeners and smart-speaker audiences alike.

3. The Bedroom Pundit will Rise Again

Podcasting has been traditionally dominated by the hobbyist rather than the professional but in recent years that has changed dramatically.

It has always been a level playing field with little or no barrier to entry, be you a national brand broadcaster or an individual with an idea, a computer and a microphone.

As more money and bigger names enter the podcasting world however that has become less so the case.

Discoverability will improve for all podcasts

Discoverability has been a big issue within podcasting with it becoming increasingly difficult to get a new show noticed without a big budget or a big name to back it up (only the top 2% of podcasts pick up 20,000+ listeners an episode*).

Discoverability for many listeners is driven via the Apple Podcast charts which means that the same few podcasts dominate the listening with very little change. However, in 2020 there is a concerted effort to change this.

Audio search could change the way we listen

Apple has already begun to roll out an "Audio Search" function for its top podcasts with a view to adding that functionality across more of their podcast library in the future.

This would enable listeners to not only find podcasts/shows based on general themes and topics (as they do now) but to narrow down on focused areas of interest, able to find the precise section of a podcast where a specific topic is discussed.

This could help benefit smaller podcasts with users able to search for very focused niches within shows and not rely on keywords to find the content they desire.

It could also fundamentally change the way a listener consumes a podcast. If you combine this feature with the aforementioned desire for shorter-form content, then we could well see future listeners zero'ing in on specific sections/moments within a podcast rather than consuming whole shows as they would commonly do at present.

This has some interesting connotations for sports with listeners able to listen to ONLY conversations relative to their team or seek out interviews with their favourite sports star that may have previously been buried within other content.

Spotify will help audiences find new shows

Spotify is also doing their bit to help with discoverability too. The recent introduction of "Your daily podcasts" will help listeners discover new podcasts with similar themes or audiences to those they already enjoy:

"It can be overwhelming and difficult for listeners to keep up with their favourite podcasts or discover new ones. This playlist helps solve both of these use cases in a listener-centric way. It’s designed to be the shortest path to a great podcast experience." Emily Rawitsch, Director of Product Design in Spotify’s personalization group

The algorithm of these recommendations is based on a number of different factors from host to podcast length to topic and it remains to be seen if this will help newer and smaller shows find listeners but anything to help discoverability across the board has to be a positive for podcasting as a whole.

Bedroom pundits will find a platform

In terms of sporting podcast personalities, 2020 will continue to see a split where it comes to established names.

Big brands will continue to tap into the usual mix of reality TV stars and established names in the industry to aid discoverability and add credibility but there will be room for others to establish themselves as credible broadcasters too.

In 2019 we saw several podcasters entering the mainstream space with the likes of BBC 5 Live inviting podcasters who have made a name for themselves in podcasting onto their more traditional outlets (TV and Radio). In 2020 we will see more names take the leap from bedroom broadcaster into a more established space offering authenticity, passion and a fans-eye-view to their output.

*Libsyn's "The Feed" Podcast.