Since it started to play regular season games in London in 2007, the NFL has made reaching fans in the U.K. an important part of its strategy. All but one NFL team – the Green Bay Packers – has been featured in a game in the city.
But while the NFL has been forced to cancel all four London games in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is still a focused effort to grow ‘American football,’ as it’s called, in the United Kingdom. Neil Reynolds, one of the U.K.’s premier voices around the sport dating back to 1991, has emerged as one of its most fervent supporters.
Reynolds, who currently serves as the host of Sky Sports’ NFL coverage, has written about football for American organizations like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, NFL.com, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and has interviewed the likes of Andrew Luck, Joe Montana, Adrian Peterson, and Jerry Rice. He’s using that experience and those connections to help the game grow across the pond.
Reynolds recently launched The Neil Reynolds Podcast, a biweekly, football-themed series that focuses on the life stories of the NFL’s biggest players. Already establishing relationships with high-profile players like Kirk Cousins, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Josh Norman, he saw that as an opportunity to try something new.
“I wanted to do something for myself, something a little bit different,” Reynolds said. “I didn’t want to tread on the toes of something that myself and Jeff have built over the years, so I looked and thought, ‘there’s so many podcasts or looking at the news of the day and the issues of the sporting day – I want to try and do something different. I also want to catch players and coaches in a more relaxed mood and in a more relaxed atmosphere.”
Over the course of his 29-year career covering football, Reynolds has developed relationships with an abundance of NFL talent, including Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Kurt Warner- to name a few. But breaking news or generating headlines were never amongst Reynolds’ interests – he was drawn towards the life stories of NFL players.
For example, for the first episode ofThe Neil Reynolds Podcast, the host wanted to go beyond a simple sit-down with Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick invited Reynolds and the HWY61 team – the show’s podcast producer – to his family home in Tampa, where Reynolds put aside his fear of fish to learn the right ways of casting a line and reeling in a catch.
The end result was a discussion that went beyond just football.
“It’s trying to get that access,” Reynolds said. “You look at the NFL in the U.K., and I’m the main host. I was on the Around The NFL podcast a couple of weeks ago and they describe me as the Rich Eisen of the U.K., which is very, very flattering. I’m not sure I’m up to that level, but I guess I am one of the main faces of the coverage over here.”
After the show debuted on April 2, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians appeared on The Neil Reynolds Podcast on April 16. At the time of the interview, Tom Brady had not signed with the team, and Jameis Winston – who recently signed a deal with the New Orleans Saints – was still the starting quarterback.
While other journalists might have centered the conversation around the quarterback position, Reynolds wanted to learn more about Arians and his career, which spans from high school to the NFL. That – as opposed to the trending topics – is what Reynolds believes will make his podcast an appealing opportunity for anyone he sits down to talk with.
“I want them to be relatively timeless so people can go back and listen to it in six months time,” Reynolds said. “They can binge listen if they need to, but really just getting the player or the coach in a relaxed environment and then being able to dig in. Rather than a five minute interview here or one or two press conference questions, it’s about actually having quality time with someone and really to dig into those stories.”
Seeing Fitzpatrick was the first in what turned out to be an important road-trip for Reynolds and HWY61. It included stops with Arians, Sports Illustrated journalist Peter King, former Super Bowl champions Cliff Avril and Dallas Clark, and Jamie Gillan, a Scottish punter for the Cleveland Browns.
All of those interviews were recorded in person before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the sports industry. With episodes launching every two weeks, it has given Reynolds time to figure out future interviewees, including Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson – but only when the team is allowed to resume its football operations.
Whomever appears in future podcast episodes, Reynolds’ show has already asserted itself into the U.K. sports podcast scene. Not only did The Neil Reynolds Podcast debut at No. 2 on the U.K. Sports iTunes rankings, it has held firm in that position through three episodes – trailing only That Peter Crouch Podcast.
The Neil Reynolds Podcast is also making its way into the United States. While nearly 65% of listeners were based in the U.K., more than 18% lived in the U.S, with Dallas on the list of the show’s 10-most-streamed cities.
For Reynolds, the show’s early success is evident that people are paying closer attention to his football knowledge and connections – and not his unique accent. With players like Fitzpatrick and Buffalo Bills corner Josh Norman, he does come to them first as a journalist, but has also built deeper relationships with them.
When Kirk Cousins appeared at the Super Bowl this year, he incorporated Hard Rock Stadium into a promotional tour for his numerous business ventures. He was not entertaining any outside media requests, with one exception – Reynolds.
Reynolds does not think that he is trying too hard to resonate with NFL talent – but their respect for him is not going unnoticed behind closed doors.
“I was told by [Nelson Luis, vice president of communications for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] that the kind of access I got with Ryan Fitzpatrick and the following day with Bruce Arians is actually increasingly unusual in this environment of media covering sports,” he said. “And he said, ‘the reason you got it is because we trust you.’ I think trust is a big thing – I’m not trying to catch anyone out. I’m not trying to make headlines. I just want the fans to be told good football stories, and that’s what I’m doing with this podcast.”