Helmets down, mics up: NFL players discover the power of podcasts
By Emmanuel Morgan
Hours after winning a playoff game with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020, tight end Travis Kelce chatted with his older brother, Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, about the intricacies of blocking defensive linemen while the siblings devoured dinner at a steakhouse.
As they laughed, Travis Kelce’s longtime manager, Aaron Eanes, realized that the moments delighting him could be projected to millions of viewers and listeners. Shortly after the meal, they all started talking seriously about putting together a podcast.
“New Heights,” the audio and video series that the Kelces began in September 2022, now consistently ranks as the top weekly sports podcast on Apple, Spotify and other platforms, fueled in part by their teams’ Super Bowl matchup in February and Travis Kelce’s budding relationship with pop star Taylor Swift.
“I think it’s fun and guys will keep doing it as long as there’s a thirst from the audience,” Jason Kelce said. “It feels like that’s the model a lot of guys are going to.”
The Kelces, whose teams were to face off in a rematch Monday night, are emblematic of the surge of NFL players who have begun hosting podcasts during the season, a surprising development in a league that tends to suppress individuality. The next-man-up mindset is pervasive in a violent sport that requires its athletes to be concealed in helmets, and in a league that enforces a strict uniform policy and delivers five-figure fines for excessive celebrations.
But an influx of younger, more tolerant coaches and executives, as well as players who are becoming more business-conscious, has opened the door for several NFL stars to moonlight as podcast hosts, including Buffalo Bills linebacker Von Miller, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons and Miami Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill.
Filled with insights about their performances, off-field adventures and the league’s daily chatter, the podcasts are a direct portal to fans and a way for players to build their brands.
“The football mentality is always, ‘Go, go, go, lock in, lock in,’ nonstop,” Hill said. “We’re coming into a day and age where football players, we want to be monetized, we want to be seen on the big screen. Everything is about branding yourself these days, and if you don’t do that, you’re going to fall behind and miss out.”
The phenomenon of active athletes hosting podcasts largely started in the NBA, where players can command more attention because there are smaller rosters and more frequent games. Early entries included JJ Redick’s “The Vertical” in 2016 and Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye’s “Road Trippin’” in 2017.
Perhaps the first active NFL players to host a podcast were offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, who was playing for the Tennessee Titans in 2019 when he started “Bussin’ With the Boys,” and his former teammate, Will Compton, a free agent at the time.
Podcasting is particularly attractive to players who are still generating NFL highlights and not enjoying a relaxing retirement. The foray into a lucrative entertainment landscape is one they can fit into a regimented schedule. Hill said he started his podcast, “It Needed to Be Said,” partly to prepare for a potential broadcasting career.
The financial upside can be gigantic: This year Pat McAfee, a former punter for the Indianapolis Colts, signed a deal with ESPN, reportedly worth $85 million, to bring his popular show to the network. Brands such as Bleacher Report, which works with Parsons and Miller, have increasingly signed up athletes. And the medium has become a growth area for agencies who represent players.
“It’s the democratization of content,” said Josh Pyatt, the co-head of WME Sports, who helped LeBron James and Peyton Manning build media production companies. “There’s a low barrier to entry, which is why I think there’s so many podcasts out there and why, when they cut through the clutter, they’re so valuable.”
Miller said podcasts also allowed players to connect authentically with fans while bypassing questions from traditional reporters. He recently interviewed his teammate Damar Hamlin, who nearly died after going into cardiac arrest during a game in January and who has spoken sparingly to the news media.
“Whenever it’s like that and the ball is in your court, you can direct the conversation to whatever you’re comfortable with,” Miller said.
Parsons’ podcasts have included thoughts on the Cowboys’ opponents, intensifying rivalries. The Kelces discuss leaguewide topics, such as the Eagles’ success on quarterback sneaks, and have featured high-profile guests including Commissioner Roger Goodell.
It was long conventional wisdom that players, particularly quarterbacks, could transition to the media world after hanging up their cleats. But taking on those responsibilities during the NFL season, a gantlet of games, film study and ice baths, seemed inconceivable to many coaches and general managers.
Brandon Marshall, an All-Pro receiver, said before the 2015 season that new Chicago Bears leadership would not let him be a television analyst on his weekly day off. After retiring, he started the “I Am Athlete” podcast.
“The NFL does a great job at protecting the shield and making sure everyone knows that it’s all about the NFL and less about the player,” he said. “What you end up getting is a more institutionalized player — a player in the box.”
But that box is breaking, players said, as franchises begin to recognize the value of marketing players’ off-the-field lives. The Los Angeles Rams now produce a podcast with quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Before Dolphins fullback Alec Ingold started his podcast in April, he alerted the team’s public-relations staff, which soon recommended he participate in a developmental broadcast boot camp.
“Football is turning more into entertainment,” Ingold said. “All these touch points allow fans to grow closer to their favorite players, and I think become more invested to the product on the field on Sundays.”
In the summer of 2022, the Kelces moved ahead with their podcast with Wave Sports + Entertainment.
Both brothers were initially wary of distracting their teams, but Jason Kelce said they became more comfortable after seeing Lewan and Compton’s successful show. They were further swayed by basketball player Draymond Green, who documented the Golden State Warriors’ 2021-22 championship season, including an episode from his hotel room after he was ejected from a playoff game.
The Kelces informed their teams’ public-relations staffs that they were starting “New Heights” — a play on Cleveland Heights, Ohio, their hometown — and Wave sent crews to their homes to install recording equipment. Shows are typically taped on Tuesdays, the normal off day for NFL players.
“Dealing with athletes, they’re creatures of habit, so as long as we can find some weekly time for them to lock it in, it makes it super easy for them,” said Tunde St. Matthew-Daniel, the senior vice president of original content for Wave. “We have the operation around them; all they have to do is show up and be engaged.”
“New Heights” succeeded quickly because of the Kelces’ jovial nature but broke through in February, when the media frenzy before the Super Bowl focused heavily on the brothers’ relationship. Another round of new listeners and viewers arrived in September after Swift attended one of Travis Kelce’s games.
For many of Swift’s devoted fans, the podcast became their introduction to football.
“We were confident it would be good, but I don’t think anybody anticipated that amount of growth,” Jason Kelce said. “We kind of struck lightning in a bottle.”