The Offside Rule co-founder Kait Borsay on 10 years of the podcast, women’s football success and why mentorship is so important

Co-founded after Lynsey Hooper and Kait Borsay met fellow Sky Sports presenter Hayley McQueen in a make-up room in 2012, The Offside Rule podcast came into being as a result of frustration about the lack of visible women in the football industry.

Beginning as a side project to their day jobs, it grew a committed follower base which is roughly 50:50 male and female, in part because of its USP: women talking about football with as much knowledge and passion as men.

“Opinionated women were few and far between at that time, especially in broadcasting,” Borsay told me in a recent interview for FIPP. “All of our conversations at work centred around our team and around the games, so I think we each wanted to have our say. But we also wanted to let the audience know that women chat and discuss football the way men were imagined to in those days – down the pub!”

In recent years, the show has ridden the twin waves of the podcast renaissance and rising interest in the women’s game to become one of the most popular shows of its genre. It is now part of The Athletic, which in turn was acquired by The New York Times earlier this year, beaming the podcast to new audiences across the pond and elsewhere.

Borsay – who has been a Liverpool fan since she was a teenager, and got her start in broadcasting after someone spotted her at a showcase and told her she’d be a good presenter – spoke to FIPP about the podcast’s origins, its growth into a more holistic media brand, its early place in the world of football analysis podcasts, and the organisation’s mentorship programme, which assists women in getting their break in football journalism.

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Co-hosts Hayley McQueenLynsey Hooper, and Kait Borsay are supported by a team of 30+ volunteers behind the scenes. Image via The Offside Rule website.

The intimacy of the podcast format

Given that The Offside Rule has been around considerably longer than most podcasts, I wondered whether Borsay and her team had had any special foresight about podcasting’s coming boom when they got started – a suggestion which made her laugh. The medium had begun to catch on around 2004, but there weren’t very many football podcasts at that time – or even in 2011, when they first started kicking around the idea of doing a podcast about football in a roundtable format.

“There certainly weren’t any female fronted ones,” explained Borsay. “But podcasts can develop quite a cult following. We didn’t have any big ideas about the podcasting format, it just worked well. But we did develop this really lovely army of loyal listeners because they liked the idea that it was a bit different – they saw us on the TV or on the internet doing news bulletins that were quite serious, and the podcast was a way for them to get a behind-the-scenes insight into these three presenters.”

They began to win awards and attract sponsorship. “Because it was this kind of secret medium, people felt like they were getting something special. Social media, Twitter, was newly around. But there was no Instagram. So there was no insight really into anyone’s life back then.”

As the podcast renaissance kicked off five or six years ago, The Offside Rule grew its established listenership significantly. “Suddenly it seemed like anyone who was anyone was doing a football podcast,” said Borsay. “So I think we were really fortunate that we had already solidified our place in the market.”

They set up a team to help run the podcast and expand it into a bigger company, leading to the founding of Offside Productions Media, which champions female talent in audio and video productions, in 2013.

“It was a mostly female team of people to help us with social media – students, allies, people who just liked what we did and wanted to have a little bit of football in their life,” she said. “And we set up a website as well, to try and champion football writers who wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity – with a big emphasis on trying to get female football writers as well. And we started to kind of grow and develop this brand.”

Finding the football journalists of the future

Off the back of this, The Offside Rule recently began to expand its reach through a generous mentorship scheme, which first ran in partnership with Twitter in 2020. It had been a long time coming.

“It was a burning ambition of mine to try and find a way to support female writers better and more thoroughly,” explained Borsay, who had noticed when doing her journalism MA in her mid-30s that there were lots of women sports journalists who struggled to get jobs after graduating. “The mentoring scheme is for female writers – whether they are middle-aged, elderly or young, it doesn’t matter. We just look for women who want to write about football, but never had an opportunity.”

The world was in the early stages of the pandemic at the time, when football games were frozen. “But as it happens, the support from Twitter came along at a really good time, because I think everyone was a bit nervous and a bit worried about whether the work opportunities were going to be there,” said Borsay. “So we launched our first scheme with three industry mentors at a critical time, when many freelancers had lost work.”

The six-month programme trained three mentees to fine-tune their writing, get new ideas and gain confidence and contacts, all with the specific aim of getting them a job in the industry. And it worked: all three now work in football. This year’s scheme is a bit longer, running for nine months, and mentees will work with mentors Laura Williamson, Deputy Editor at The Athletic, John Cross, Chief football writer at The Mirror, and Martyn Ziegler, Chief sports reporter at The Times.

Women’s football goes mainstream

It isn’t only the podcasting landscape that has changed in the past decade. Borsay told me about the enormous shifts she’s observed in the women’s game in that time, with the London 2012 Olympics being one of the markers on the grid for the growth of women’s football.

“You were getting massive audiences watching England women at the Olympics,” she explained. “And you know, to be absolutely honest, that was people who just wanted to be there. Yes, yes, there were some football fans there. But predominantly, people wanted to be there, people want to fill out stadiums. And because the team did fairly well, they just captured the imagination. We hadn’t seen England women as a football team out in the Olympics for a long time.”

This was followed by the Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015, which she and Hooper attended. “We got some really good coverage from that. There was still a lot of nervousness from some outlets as to whether they would send people, whether it was worth it,” said Borsay. “So The Guardian, for example, sent someone just for the group stages. The BBC sent kind of a full crew of people, but it was covered in a skeleton kind of way.”

“Now we don’t have to say ‘Arsenal women’ any more.”

It was also at a time when the England men’s team wasn’t doing very well. England women’s ended up reaching the semifinals, eventually winning the bronze medal after defeating Germany. “And that took everyone by surprise,” explained Borsay. “There were some brilliant performances, and we loved reporting on it. But we had no idea how it was really capturing the imagination over in England as well.”

As the women’s team progressed, a snowball effect of coverage ensued. “It became a bright spark on the horizon: for the first time ever, people were going into the pub saying, can we put the football on? And that was a women’s game. The players were featured on TV programmes, an people were asking: where’s this women’s football team come from? Never mind that we’d been following them for years! But it’s okay. Great, actually, because people loved the fact that we were doing well.”

The FA followed this success with a five-year plan – now in its second iteration – to help with the sustained growth of women’s football. Prize money has gone up, streaming rights have bumped up to one million pounds, and the Euros are just around the corner. “This year alone, women’s football has just really excelled,” said Borsay.

Sky recently revealed that the viewing figures for the Women’s Super League this season are even higher than the company had anticipated – with 125,000 viewers on average per game, and Man City vs Spurs drawing in 550,000 viewers. “I’ve been blown away by how well it’s done,” said Borsay. “I think it’s safe to say we’re in a different position now.”

Nonetheless, growth needs to be sustainable. “We’ve seen models over in America where they’ve launched a big new league and it’s collapsed because of financial issues. I take that as a warning, that you can’t launch something big and flashy unless you can sustain it. That’s why I think the FA has done a brilliant job with the women’s Super League growing it and growing it committing to it, and now broadcasters are jumping on board, we don’t have to say ‘Arsenal women’ every time Arsenal play.”

Now, when Borsay takes her young son to see the women’s FA Cup Final, he doesn’t even register a difference. “These are the six- and seven-year-old kids who have never known anything but women playing football like men play football,” said Borsay.

From side bench to centre field

Finally, Borsay reflected fondly on the way things have changed since the early days of The Offside Rule. The clue is in the name, which came about after Richard Keys and Andy Grey – Sky Sports presenters at the time – had to leave their jobs because of some sexist comments they made about young female referee Sian Massey-Ellis. “They infamously said that ‘she doesn’t know the offside rule’, and that’s why we decided to call the podcast The Offside Rule (We Get It),” explained Borsay.

Eventually, they dropped the second part of the name. “Five years into the podcast, we all agreed that we were at the place where we didn’t need to make that joke anymore,” said Borsay. “I’m sure some of the sexist jokes still exist, but generally we’re all a lot more used to hearing women talking about football without having to make kind of a stereotypical joke or having to resist certain tropes.

“Things had moved on so much – and that that gives you an indication of how acceptable it’s become to kind of hear women talking about football.”

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