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Belfast’s Phil Brown: Football podcasts in a pandemic

Belfast’s Phil Brown: football podcasts in a pandemic
by
James Bartlett

Football is back, but there have been plenty of match cancellations and postponements – and fielding under-strength sides – as players and staff have tested positive for Covid-19. The idea of a ground having big crowds back seems a way off too, but hopefully the vaccines offer some light at the end of the tunnel.

A little over three years ago, Belfast-born Phil Brown had just signed a deal with US broadcaster NBC Sports to bring “Beyond The Pitch,” a Man Utd-centric football (or as they call it, soccer) podcast he hosts with former player Danny Higginbotham, to a much bigger audience.

Brown, who started his podcast venture over a decade back when he saw a gap in the market, saw things go well after that link-up, especially as football was getting more mainstream in the States, especially after the national women’s team were world champions.

Then came the global shutdown.

So, as 2021 splutters and struggles into life, we decided to catch up with the life-long Man U fan for an update.

“Covid has most definitely impacted broadcasters like myself for the better – and for the worst.”

The suspension of all sports – and the mental health effects of that – affected everyone, he says, but it also gave Brown time to upgrade software, and change how he delivered content (adding video, rather than just audio) from his home studio via ISDN lines and MP4 audio files.

Prior to the pandemic 90% of BTP’s content was audio, but by June or July last year that had changed to about 65-70% video.

“That changed both my relationship with my guests and my listeners. It’s a different interview, a different vibe when you’re actually looking at someone, their facial expressions and body language, and I have to say, I’ve enjoyed it more. The listeners have too.”

Brown, 43, has been in the USA for nearly 20 years, and initially worked in air conditioning engineering company before following his dream – inspired in part by the trouble many ex-pats found trying to get football news from Europe.

They cold-called many of the big clubs, and “bluffed” about having a studio in Hollywood. Brown says that his Irishness helped, and soon enough many of the teams, United especially, with an already-established link to North America and keen to get a toehold in that market, soon supplied players like Rio Ferdinand for interviews.

Brown and his family live in Yorba Linda, in Orange County, California, and they unexpectedly got larger recently:
“We now have four children; two of each. My baby just turned two years old, and she was our little miracle. We were completely done after having our third child (my second with my current wife), and we had to get medical help to have both of my kids anyway. So, to have another, without help, wasn’t something we were expecting at all!”

The daily challenges for the Browns have been great, too.

“Like so many others, our kids have had their school, sport and social life taken away, and we’ve done everything we can to make sure the vacuum in their lives isn’t filled with video games. My wife has been truly unbelievable, and they’re still doing great academically, they still get their exercise, but it’s just been really difficult dealing with the loss of the things you can’t replace. It has renewed my appreciation for the things I have in my life, a job, a healthy family and my own physical/mental wellbeing.”

Phil and the family usually visit Belfast every year, but of course that couldn’t happen in 2020:

“The last time we went in 2019, we all went for (boxer) Michael Conlan’s fight at the Falls Park, and we stayed for a month. Despite my wife and children being born and raised in Los Angeles, they absolutely love Belfast, so much so that my 13-year-old son wants to live there – ha ha!”

As for the future, Brown sees soccer changing a great deal.

“It will be an à la carte menu. Comprehensive cable sports packages will go, and people only will want to pay for games and events as they go – with is not what the league want to offer, nor what the teams collectively want. The big, famous teams will be fine, but what about the smaller teams? For podcasting, if you’re in to game analysis and reaction then live streaming will be fundamental, if your podcast is more about telling timeless stories then you’ll be fine.”

As for 2021, his perfect year would include Man Utd winning a major trophy, and more success for boxer Carl Frampton, another Belfast-born lad who is one of Brown’s closest friends.

“I’d love to see him win a world title in a 3rd weight division, which would be up there as one of the greatest sporting accomplishments in our nation’s history.”

A local champion and plenty of football; something fans on both sides of the pond can really get behind.

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