With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Kansas City Chiefs are known for their quick-strike offense. Despite a late start vis-a-vis other NFL teams, the Chiefs have made fast progress with their first podcast network.
Since May, the AFC West-leading Chiefs have gone from zero to four team podcasts, with another two in creative development. The Chiefs official podcast network has racked up more than 500,000 downloads in five months. The club expects that number to reach the millions by 2020.
Mike Cukyne, the Chiefs vice president of content and digital operations, has been happy with the viewership growth thus far, but he’s most impressed with his new podcast network’s retention rate in the 40%-plus range.
“I’m not looking for a land grab. I want retention rates. I want people to consume our content on a regular basis. That’s the key to where I’d like to take this business. I don’t want five million people consuming one podcast. I want fewer doing it more often,” he said.
Much like on the field, the 24-year old Mahomes, the league’s reigning MVP, would be an easy person to build a podcast network around.
But rather than going for that big splash, the Chiefs have utilized a deliberate brick-by-brick strategy, providing a window into how NFL clubs utilize their internal resources in today’s media environment.
Back in May, the Chief rolled out their team first podcast called In The Trenches. The pod examines the not-so-glamorous life of interior linemen on both sides of the ball. It’s co-hosted by team reporter BJ Kissel and six-year NFL veteran offensive linemen Nick Leckey.
“In The Trenches is beyond just a regular, day to day football talk and game breakdown. It’s really a look at the linemen,” said Cukyne, who joined the Chiefs in 2018 after eight years with Meredith Corp. “How do they feel? What do they do in their spare time? It’s a look into that space that nobody spends a lot of time on.”
The team’s second pod, Defending The Kingdom, features the longtime voice of Chiefs play-by-play announcer Mitch Holthus and former linebacker Shawn Barber. Cukyne and Holthus had been talking about podcast ideas for months. So that was a natural, he said.
“We felt we could bring to market these two areas quicker. Given the experience that these gentlemen have in broadcasting, I don’t want to just throw somebody on a podcast to talk about offense – unless it is thought through.”
Meanwhile, the team’s third pod, Kingdom Stories, goes under the helmet to tell the backstories of current Chiefs. Players talk about challenges and adversities they’ve faced in their own words.
A fourth called The Breakdown With Matt McMullen just launched in recent weeks. It’s more of a traditional gridiron X’s and O’s pod, with locker room interviews and game analysis. The first two pods have driven most of the downloads, according to Cukyne.
“I want to be more thoughtful in our approach. I want to talk about defense. I want to talk about offense. Long-form player profiles on and off the field,” he said. “So my strategy with the podcast network is really a diverse group of well-thought-out podcasts.”
Don’t worry Mahomes fans. One of the Chiefs’ two pods in development will focus on head coach Andy Reid’s high-powered offense, which led the NFL with 425.6 yards per game in 2018.
The other will focus on the team’s growing female fan base. Women now make up roughly half the fans of nationally-popular teams such as the Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Chiefs say they’re monetizing their podcast network with advertising. But Cukyne said he is a couple of weeks away from naming specific sponsors.
The Chiefs call their fan base The Kingdom. If you’re a Chiefs fan, no matter where you are, you’re a member of Chiefs Kingdom. The franchise has a unique opportunity to grow that base both in the U.S. and overseas.
Located geographically in the heart of the American Midwest, the Chiefs’ fan base extends through six U.S. states with a combined population of 21 million: Missouri; Kansas; Nebraska; Iowa; Oklahoma; and Arkansas.
With young, telegenic stars like Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs’ appeal transcends boundaries.
Mahomes himself boasts 2.4 million followers on social media vs. 4 million for his team. For NFL sponsors like Oakley, Mahomes is the face and future of America’s most popular sports league. Arrowhead Stadium is routinely hailed as one of the loudest stadiums in the world.
The new podcast network enables the team to reach out and speak directly with enthusiastic Mahomes/Chiefs fans and in other U.S. cities and overseas.
“Chief Kingdom goes beyond Kansas City. We’re a national and international brand,” said Cukyne.
NFL clubs like the Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings have come to realize that team-owned podcasts enable them to control their own media message, said Seth Everett, a pioneering sports podcaster who hosts the Sports with Friends and Hall of Justice pods.
“You want to control the content. You want a Kansas City Chiefs fans to download your podcast and listen to that on Monday morning – as opposed to listening to sports radio ripping you,” said Everett. “Control your content. It’s very simple, but it’s so smart.”
In addition, NFL teams have like the Chiefs have virtually become their own media channels, noted sports radio consultant Jason Barrett.
In some ways, rich NFL teams are in a better position to capitalize on podcasts than the struggling local media that cover them.
When it comes to pods, NFL teams naturally get the best access to their own players and coaches. Many have built state-of-the-art media facilities. Along with in-stadium, radio and TV advertising, podcasts give clubs another marketing option to dangle in front of sponsors.
With more fans accessing sports on their phones, teams don’t have to buy local TV/radio stations to control their message. Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins, for example, has bought multiple radio stations in the DC area.
“With revenue projections for podcasting increasing year after year, and franchises able to leverage their access to produce content which will strengthen their relevance with fans, and grow revenue in multiple ways, it’s an easy business decision,” said the President of Barrett Sports Media. “I expect to see this trend continue with other sports franchises.”
The NFL wants to reach younger sports fans. Most of the growth in podcasting comes from Americans aged 12-24 years old, according to Edison Research’s The Podcast Consumer 2019.
Even if they’ve only been at it for five months, the Chiefs appear to be quick learners.
The team is already expanding Kingdom Stories to also tell the tales of retired team legends. Don’t forget the Chiefs boast famous alumni like Tony Gonzalez, now with Fox Sports, and quarterback Len Dawson, victor in Super Bowl IV.
In another wrinkle, the Chiefs broadcast their team pods live on team social channels. So there’s a video as well as an audio component for fans to enjoy.
“We will record these podcasts as they occur. And we will air them for more of a video-on-demand experience as needed,” said Cukyne.