I am not a guy that has stern opinions on the world of fashion. I know what I like and that is really where my eye kind of stops.
One company that I have discovered in recent years is Homefield Apparel. If you are a college football fan, you can’t do much better for vintage designs and comfortable hoodies and t-shirts. My wardrobe is stacked with their stuff, even some for teams I have no strong feeling for. Look, below is everything I own from the company laid out on my bedroom floor.
Homefield would not have been something I even knew about if it weren’t for me devotion to college football podcasts, particularly The Shutdown Fullcast and Split Zone Duo. The hosts were loyal customers of Homefield and Homefield was a loyal advertiser on both shows.
In fact, those podcast sponsorships are a huge part of the story of the company’s growth and success. CEO Connor Hitchcock told me they are partnerships his company could not survive without.
“They do things really well,” he says of The Shutdown Fullcast. “Yeah, they joke about audio and all of that, but they put a lot of time into what they do and they created a community of general college football, right? I mean it is a community and it is strong and we see that time and time again.”
That made me wonder about the advertising strategy of Homefield and companies like it, companies that are all over digital shows, but rarely if ever heard on terrestrial radio. What is the aversion those brands have to sports radio?
It seems like if you are looking for an audience with a deep connection to the person they are listening to and loves sports the way a brand like Homefield needs its customers to, sports radio would be an ideal space to spend money.
Connor says the answer lies in the dedication of the audience. Sports radio listeners are loyal to their teams. They might be loyal to their station. That doesn’t help Homefield the way a podcaster’s connection to his or her audience does.
“A lot of the podcasts I’ve found, people typically come for the people, for the hosts, not because ‘oh they’re talking about this, I want to hear it’ whereas with sports radio there is definitely more of that.”
Homefield is based in Indianapolis. Hitchcock uses the local sports talk landscape as an example, saying that if you want to listen to sports radio and you’re in that city, you’re going to listen to Dan Dakich no matter how you feel about the guy. Advertising to an audience like that isn’t part of what has made Homefield a success.
“For us, you have to walk that line really carefully, because if you see that connection [between an audience and a podcaster], you’re like ‘Cool. If they advocate for us, people will feel that connection to us.’ You don’t want to manipulate a relationship so people buy more from you. That’s not what we are.
“However, there is a deeper connection. So when they feel more connected to podcast hosts, they know if they buy from the companies that are advertising there, they are helping those people do what they want to do.”
I asked Connor if the issue was one of demographic. The median age of any podcast’s listeners will almost certainly be lower than the age of the average sports radio listener. Are younger people more into what Homefield is doing?
He says there is a difference in the audience, but it isn’t in the demographics. It is the psychographics.
“Yeah, and again it may not be age for us. It may be more of a connection,” he says and offers an example of what he means. “I got an email this morning saying that it is cool to see the brand where it is. A guy bought a shirt back in 2018 and has been following us ever since. They are a part of the story and I think part of that is podcasts are more informal. There are podcast communities.”
What Connor is describing sounds like a failure by those of us in the industry at telling sports radio’s story. Plenty of hosts and shows do have that kind of connection with their audience. It’s why we talk about a two-year window when launching a show and finding its audience. It’s why social media sites are filled with messages from fans saying they will never listen to a station again when a show comes to an end.
That is something that I have noticed in the past working with sales staffs in multiple formats. Ad reps are eager to introduce their talent to potential clients. They show off ratings, past guest lists, anything to make the talent look like someone a client would want to spend money with. The audience is almost an afterthought at times.
Selling the host is important. You do want a potential client to recognize the value in who is spreading his or her message, but maybe stations aren’t always doing it in the right way.
A business owner like Connor doesn’t care how the talent sounds or even how many people he or she has listening. He wants to know how the listeners react to the talent.
“It’s more about the people than it is the medium,” he says when I ask point blank why he hasn’t spent more money on sports radio.
The good news for sports radio sellers is that it sounds like Connor Hitchcock’s mind can be changed. He and business owners like him, who all value connection between the messenger and his or her audience, have seen promising returns by investing in smaller, closer knit communities. He doesn’t think it is entirely impossible to find that in radio.
I asked Connor if he could ever see Homefield ads airing on stations in places that would make sense. Atlanta and Nashville are college football hotbeds. Homefield has licensing deals with the University of Utah, BYU, and Utah State, all within the Salt Lake City market. Do either of those sound like appealing scenarios for buying radio advertising?
“I mean, we could. We’ve had talks with different radio shows before and we’ve done little trials. In fact, we have one we’re gonna try out here in a bit,” he says.
Axios recently ran a piece that showed a projection of the money spent in advertising on podcasts growing by nearly 1500% from 2015 to 2024. Still, that would only put the industry around $1.7 billion. Compare that to print media advertising, which is expected to fall during the same time span by 27%, leaving the industry at a mere $40.3 billion.
That same piece also showed how listenership is distributed and it paints a perfect picture of Connor Hitchcock’s approach to advertising Homefield Apparel.
The top 1% of podcasts get around 35,000 downloads per episode. That is Joe Rogan, Adam Carolla, and ESPN. The top 2% get around 20,000 downloads per episode. Still a big number for podcasts, but a significant drop.
If you scroll down to look at what puts a podcast in the top 20% amongst all of the hundreds of thousands of its peers, it is a mere 1000 downloads per episode. Radio spends so much time focused on the numbers and not the reaction.
Connor doesn’t put a lot of effort into finding ways to advertise with the Joe Rogans and ESPNs of the world. The bigger the audience, the bigger percentage of passive listeners there are.
This is a guy that built a business with his wife in their spare time. They grew it from a company that made shirts featuring messages of Indiana pride into one of the coolest licensed apparel companies on the Internet. That doesn’t happen by focusing on the number of eyeballs or ears that will receive the message. It is the result of getting in front of the right eyes and ears, the ones that want to support the people singing the praises of Homefield.
Is Connor’s approach crazy? Is it just ahead of its time? Whichever the case, there are going to be more and more people in the coming years that think the same way Connor Hitchcock does and sports radio needs to be ready to answer that.
“With a podcast, you’re scrappy,” Connor says when I ask why it is that listeners are more apt to respond to ads on a podcast than on the radio. “You’re doing everything. You’re responding to every tweet that comes in. It feels like podcasts just allow you to have more interaction with people.”
Every business is a people business. Radio is a story telling business. When reps hit the streets to tell the story of their people, what people are they talking about? For so long the focus has been on how popular personalities are or how good they are at commanding attention.
An advertiser like Connor Hitchcock is viewing advertising through a different lens. He doesn’t want to know about the number of people listening to a show or a host. He wants to know about the number that hang on that host’s every word and want to support advertisers because those advertisers support the host they love.
When reps “tell the story of our people,” it has to include how our people have created their own people. That is why the advertisers that choose podcasts are choosing podcasts.