Canada's sports podcast revolution: As radio cuts back, a digital empire emerges

In a news release issued in June 2019, Sportsnet cloaked the decision to part ways with Bob McCown under a shiny gloss of praise and euphemism — the venerated sports radio host was merely going to “sign off” one last time — but McCown viewed the transaction with financial clarity.

He calls it a firing.

“People kept telling me: ‘Why don’t do you a podcast?’” McCown said over the phone from his home in Mississauga, Ont. “I said, ‘There’s no f—— money in podcasting.’ But eventually, I was doing nothing so I thought, for s—- and giggles, I’ll do a five-minute-a-day podcast.”

In October, that podcast, now featuring John Shannon as co-host and producer, announced a partnership agreement with a U.S.-based sports gambling company. McCown said the two-year deal lifted revenues into “seven figures” and pointed to the guest list — which includes recent appearances by Raptors coach Nick Nurse and hockey deity Wayne Gretzky — as a further indicator of growth.

“I work one hour a day,” he said. “And the best part is, I can do it with my underwear on. I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to pay for parking. If I want a cup of tea, I make a cup of tea in the kitchen, and then I walk to my office and do the show.

“It couldn’t possibly — possibly — be any easier.”

Scaling Chartable’s list of Canadian sports podcasts might not be quite that easy, but a proliferation of shows from independent companies is challenging the traditional hierarchy. Several creators have said they are filling the vacuum left behind by cutbacks in terrestrial sports radio across Canada, especially in markets outside Toronto.

Nobody needs a transmitter in digital space, which is where the battle for consumers has shifted, with the country’s sports radio duopoly — Bell Media and Rogers Sports & Media — now in competition with voices that do not require support from a multi-billion-dollar telecommunications giant.

Some of those voices are familiar. In Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver, shows that once appeared on terrestrial sports radio are now exclusively digital. McCown is still in Toronto, and he is still defiantly creating the same listening experience he did for decades at The Fan 590, but on a new platform. (The Athletic also produces a suite of podcasts aimed at Canadian audiences.)

“Appointment-based listening is a dying business,” said Jordan Gnat, chief executive of Playmaker Capital, a company that has grown through a series of acquisitions in digital sports media. “It’s not that people don’t want to listen anymore. It’s (that) they want to listen to the product they want, the personality they want, and when they want it. Podcasting does that for you.”

Playmaker owns more than a dozen podcasts, populated by voices familiar to Canadian TV and radio audiences. At an event held for investors at Real Sports Bar & Grill in October, the company claimed its content drove more than 550,000 streams a month.

Gnat walked the audience through a presentation slide charting the company’s growth over 18 months, with reported revenue jumping to more than $50 million from about $9 million. Playmaker now claims to have 425 employees, up from 160 last year.

The company owns Yardbarker, as well as Daily Faceoff and The Nation Network. Brent Wallace, the former TSN reporter, has signed a three-year contract to host a podcast with the company. Three hosts from a Sportsnet radio morning show in Calgary have also moved under the umbrella.

“We began to find the talent that was working at these big conglomerate radio companies and saying, ‘If they are not getting the attention and the focus, can we get them to become their own business?’” said Gnat. “’Can they bet on themselves a little bit more?’”

He said the podcasts make money. (Maryann Turcke, a former president of Bell Media, is chair of the company’s board of directors.)

“The advertisers really drove the logic behind why it would work economically,” said Gnat. “We’re very focused on ensuring these are profitable. We’re not building a bunch of podcasts we can’t monetize.”

Dean Molberg saw the logic in moving to podcasting. The married father of three was a long-time host on Sportsnet 960, in Calgary, and had long since grown weary of his 3 a.m. weekday wakeup call. After making his intentions known internally in January, he signed off in June, putting his faith out into the universe that something would materialize.

He said he connected with Playmaker in late summer. On Oct. 1, Molberg, Ryan Pinder and former Flames defenceman Rhett Warrener reached a deal, effectively shifting a morning show from Sportsnet onto a podcast within The Nation Network.

“It was an emotional thing for me, because I love radio,” said Molberg. “It’s a great medium, and it’s a great job. Especially with talk radio, you become part of peoples’ lives — they feel like they know you.”

Radio, he said, was all he had known.

“In one breath I tell you that I think radio is going to last for a very long time,” he said. “At the same point, I wonder if we’re very close to the crossroads where 8-track met the cassette tape, and cassette met the CD.”

As Molberg spoke, he said the furniture was still being moved into the new studio space. Two 65-inch screens had already been installed, where the show — “Barn Burner” — would host watch parties and online streams.

“We’ve got our high-def cameras, lighting and microphones here,” he said. “We’re getting signage put up. We have vehicles that are going to be wrapped and logo-ed and on the streets very soon.”



Bob McCown speaks out on getting fired from The Fan

According to Chartable, Barn Burner was within the top 10 Apple podcasts in Canadian sports this week.

“It’s clear that online is where it’s going to end up being,” said Wallace, the former TSN reporter.

Wallace was caught up in a wave of cost-cutting that swept across Bell Media last year, removed from the talent roster along with Dan O’Toole and Natasha Staniszewski. The cuts carried into the following week, when Bell Media dropped its all-sports format at stations in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Hamilton.

After creating his own podcast with former Senators defenceman Marc Methot, Wallace will co-host a show with former Ottawa forward Bobby Ryan under the Playmaker umbrella. It will record four days a week — three with Ryan, and a fourth with a guest yet to be determined.

“There’s no time limit, there’s no content rules,” said Wallace. “I don’t have anything I have to worry about saying. So what you get is the reality of us just giving out our honest opinions.”

Sportsnet and TSN have made successive rounds of cuts to both television and radio. McCown was released in 2019 in a round that included on-air personalities such as Nick Kypreos, Doug MacLean, Scott Morrison and Shannon.

Stephen Brunt, the long-standing journalist and host, parted ways with Sportsnet earlier this year. It was not a retirement.

Both networks still maintain a large footprint in the digital space. At Sportsnet, “32 Thoughts,” with co-hosts Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman, is one of the most popular Canadian sports podcasts on any of the available charts. Several Sportsnet products, including “Leafs Talk,” “The Raptors Show with Will Lou” and “The Jeff Marek Show” dot the top of the Apple podcast list on Chartable.

The TSN Radio afternoon drive show, “OverDrive,” is also routinely near the top of the list.

And then there are the independent shows. The Steve Dangle Podcast Network (SDPN) did not launch with the support of a telecommunications company, but with a young man screaming at a camera inside his home more than a decade ago. While the Maple Leafs still provide the main host plenty of reason to rage at the camera, the network has launched an array of titles.

In Winnipeg, Andrew “Hustler” Paterson and Michael Remis launched “Winnipeg Sports Talk” after Bell Media shuttered the only all-sports radio station in town. It is still in business more than a year later and is still independently owned and operated.

In Vancouver, the Bell Media retreat led to the creation of another slate of podcasts. Matthew Sekeres and Blake Price lost their jobs when TSN 1040 went off the air last year — famously, and darkly, with Green Day’s “Good Riddance” playing as a farewell song — and quickly moved into digital.

At first, they tried to create an exact replica of their show as a podcast. They have adapted the show as more data rolled in: Their show now drops much earlier in the day and it is shorter than it was on radio, both in a nod to online listener trends.

“For us, it’s just about trying to provide the best local coverage that we can,” said Nathalie Rees, chief executive of Go Goat Sports, which has partnered with Sekeres and Price to operate the new show.

Rob Rees, her husband and fellow co-founder of Go Goat, said the show is averaging a 95 per-cent consumption rate — the amount of a show the audience listens to.

“When you get a great consumption rate, it allows you to give your sponsors the confidence that 100 per cent of their ads are guaranteed to be heard,” he said. “Unlike sports radio, where they’re running six-minute commercial sets.”



After TSN closed the door, Matt Sekeres and Blake Price built a new home in Vancouver sports talk

Rob Rees said the Sekeres and Price show is reaching more than 60,000 unique listeners a month. He said it had more than 56,000 downloads in a single week earlier this fall and is generating more than 2.5 million impressions a month on YouTube.

“It’s 100 per cent self-funded by all of us,” said Rob. “We don’t have a single investor. I would say that we’re breaking even and, on average, I would say it takes two years to fully develop and establish the podcast.”

The company also produces “The Ray & Dregs Hockey Podcast,” with ESPN colour voice Ray Ferraro and TSN analyst Darren Dreger. Ferraro recently announced he was stepping away from his television commitments with TSN to spend more time with his family, but he is going to be spending more time around the Go Goat Sports productions.

Nathalie Rees said “The Ray & Dregs Hockey Podcast” is moving to two shows a week, up from one. On top of that, he said Ferraro will also appear as a guest with Sekeres and Price every Friday. (Dreger will be on the show every Wednesday.)

“We’re into Season 4 of ‘Ray & Dregs,’ and you’re still talking to advertising agencies that haven’t figured out properly how to buy podcasts, or even how to incorporate brands into podcasts,” said Rob Rees. “You’re hearing a lot of brands now saying, ‘I gotta get into this podcast thing.’”

Bob McCown only got into the podcast thing after Sportsnet removed his chair on the radio. He said ownership of his eponymous show is split into three pieces: One for him, one for Shannon, and one for the technical producer, who is based in the Maritimes.

“Everybody has a piece of the action,” said McCown. “Obviously, I have the biggest stake. But they each have a stake. They’re happier than pigs in s—.”

He said he will not follow other independent podcasts and launch a line of merchandise. He does not plan to spend much time at meet-and-greets with listeners — “I’m not going to shake hands and kiss babies” — but he will attend some special events BetRivers is planning.

While other independent podcasts try to build a community among listeners, as a means of building an advantage over their corporate competition, McCown said he is not going to change a thing.

“I’m not doing that,” he said. “I have absolutely no interest in generating some kind of community. If you want to listen, here it is. If you don’t want to listen, f— off. It’s simple.”

(Photo of Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt: Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images)