33m downloads - but I wasn't paid a penny for six months
On the eve of the last football season, people tuning in to Guardian’s Football Weekly would have been surprised by the absence of James Richardson.
The iconic host of Channel 4’s Football Italia coverage in the 1990s was arguably just as famous for his stewardship of the paper’s hugely popular podcast, which has run since 2006.
However stand-in host Max Rushden was now the main man as Richardson had left for a new podcast venture alongside long-time Football Weekly collaborators Iain Macintosh, a freelance journalist, and producer Ben Green.
The Totally Football Show contained many elements which made its rival successful, from Richardson’s love of puns to panel discussions with top journalists on the Premier League, European and world football.
It was slick, professional and informative – but behind the scenes, chief executive Macintosh was coming to terms with the reality of starting up his Muddy Knees Media business.
“I worked for six months and didn't take a penny – we didn't even have an office for the first two or three months,” he told BusinessCloud.
“When we got those first advertising deals in, it meant I could finally quit my freelance gig with ESPN and work [for Muddy Knees] full-time; we could buy furniture for an office; and start hiring staff.
“To say the first months were bootstrapped does a disservice to the phrase. We did everything at the lowest possible price that we could and focused all our money on the two most important things – the studio and the talent. That's why we sounded so professional.”
After working as a freelance football reporter for more than a decade, Macintosh was finally scratching an itch. “As a writer, once you hit send, that's it – everything resets and you start again,” he explained. “You're not really working towards anything.
“Working as part of a team has been the most satisfying and exciting aspect of this: we didn't leave to do a different football show so much as leave to go and start a company and make lots and lots of things.”
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Muddy Knees’ second podcast was The Totally Football League Show and launched a few weeks into last season. Seeking to stretch the initial funding from a small consortium of backers to its limit, Macintosh and Green presented and produced the show themselves.
Respected broadcaster Caroline Barker has since come on board to discuss England’s lower leagues. “Sacking myself from that show was the easiest decision I've ever had to make,” said Macintosh. “If you put our team in a Sky Sports studio, that's a first-rate TV show right there.”
The success of the main show – it attracted more than 33 million downloads last season and the average audience is in the hundreds of thousands – enables the team to pursue side projects as it builds a wider podcasting network.
Green’s love of wrestling comes across in his The Parts Unknown podcast while Richardson fronts a nostalgic Golazzo show about Italian football. There is a podcast about Scottish football, while The Totally Football Show: American Edition launched this week with former United States, LA Galaxy and Coventry star Cobi Jones as host.
The team has also dipped its toes into branded content by creating cycling podcast The Bradley Wiggins Show for Eurosport. “For all the fuss that's made over the football show, we're a podcast production company – we want to make lots and lots of podcasts,” said Macintosh.
“Our other podcasts have tens of thousands of listeners – helped by the fact we can promote them from The Totally Football Show – and they all made a profit to some degree in the first season. We were very relieved by that!
“I'd always wondered about the potential of podcasts. How far could you take this idea? More and more people are pouring in and habitually listening to podcasts. Over the last year big businesses and big brands have realised this is a great market to be in."
Podcasts are enjoying a rapid rise in popularity as they can be easily streamed and downloaded on the go while they have been introduced to a whole new audience through platforms such as Spotify and Amazon’s Alexa.
This presents Muddy Knees with an opportunity to build a wider network of non-sports podcasts, according to Macintosh, who says there are plans to launch five or six of these in January and build a larger core team in the coming months.
“One is a history podcast for grown-ups who didn't do that well in school, weren't taught that well in school or maybe didn’t even show up for school. It aims to make history accessible and fun,” he revealed.
Green (pictured above), author of the Podcast Master eBook, emphasised the importance of branching out into non-sports categories and branded content. “We're good at what we do and we want to apply those skills and our experience and knowledge of podcasting to other topics and subjects and get big audiences,” he said.
“I joined the Guardian back in 2006 and for a long time I had to explain to people exactly what a podcast was. Now we’re reaching listeners who haven't got a history of listening to podcasts at all. That's exciting.
“I think we were lucky that we left to do this when we did. If we'd done it a season before, we'd have been too early – and if we'd done it this summer, we'd have been too late.”
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