- “No Dunks” is an NBA podcast from the creators of “The Basketball Jones” and “The Starters.”
- In 2019, after their NBA TV show contract ended, the creators signed a deal with The Athletic.
- They now have one of The Athletic’s top podcasts, consistently hitting 1 million downloads a month.
The creators of “The Starters” went in the 2010s from recording a basketball podcast in their producer’s Toronto garage to a daily television show on NBA TV.
But their TV fame was fickle. In 2019, NBA TV chose not to renew the show’s contract, co-host Trey Kerby told Insider. And copyright issues prevented the creators from using the ‘The Starters'” name that had made them a mainstay in NBA media.
Fast forward to 2022 and the group, which now hosts the podcast “No Dunks,” is right back where they started nearly two decades ago: recording from Jason Doyle’s garage. Doyle produces the show for its four hosts: Tas Melas and JE Skeets, who were the original voices of the podcast when it was known as “The Basketball Jones”; Kerby, who joined the team in 2010, and Leigh Ellis, who joined in 2011.
The quintet is a far cry from the 20-man team and TV studio that Turner Sports’ NBA TV provided during their six-year run with the network. But “No Dunks” has continued to thrive — steered by a loyal fan base that’s followed them from one garage to another — and is now a model podcast in The Athletic’s audio division.
How ‘The Starters’ became ‘The Free Agents’
“The Starters” got off in 2013 to a rough start on NBA TV as they struggled to translate their hour-long podcast to TV.
The group found their stride in season two, by shortening the program and embracing the quirkiness and relatability that came with being NBA fans themselves.
“We’re not trying to make that stuffy ‘boring’ type of sports reactionary show,” Skeets said. “We just had to stay the course of being ‘weird’ or at least comfortable in our own skin, and it took a little bit to get there.”
The show’s original 2013 NBA TV deal was for two years, with an option to extend for one year. Turner renewed the show for that additional year, and then signed the group to another three-year deal that would keep them on NBA TV until the summer of 2019.
But in 2018, AT&T bought Turner Sports’ parent company Time Warner Inc. Melas believes the AT&T deal was the catalyst for the show’s cancellation.
“AT&T came in and made a purchase and the money had to be cut somewhere,” Melas said. “I will always think that it was because of a financial decision and not because of what we did.”
Turner Sports declined Insider’s request for comment.
While the group wanted to stay with Turner, they knew the reality of the media business. Ellis said he had also witnessed top talent go in and out of the spotlight during the group’s time with the Canadian sports-media brand theScore prior to NBA TV.
“It’s a fickle industry,” Ellis said.
Later in 2019, the group started podcasting under the name ‘The Free Agents.’ That moniker lasted just seven episodes before they found a new home as one of the pioneers of The Athletic’s burgeoning podcast division.
How ‘No Dunks’ has thrived in its new home
“The Free Agents” podcast had several suitors when it hit the market in June 2019, according to Matt Olson, the creators’ agent. Bidders included DAZN, Cadence13, SiriusXM, and Westwood One, but the group ultimately signed that fall with The Athletic.
“The Athletic valued them properly, were going to make them their flagship NBA podcast, and the amount of NBA coverage The Athletic already had made it the best fit,” Olson wrote in an email to Insider.
The Athletic had established itself as a top sports-media outlet since its founding in 2016. But it was in the early stages of building an audio division and jumped at the opportunity to sign an experienced group to pioneer the NBA side of its podcasting arm.
“It was really trying to optimize across producing shows that were both informative for a sports fan and also entertaining,” said Andrew Wasserman, The Athletic’s head of audio. “It’s very difficult to find a better example of a group of guys who nailed that balance than ‘No Dunks.'”
The Athletic signed the creators to a two-year deal with a one-year extension, like Turner.
While the podcasters aren’t attending NBA events as frequently as they did at Turner, they’re earning more than they were before. Olson said that The Athletic is paying the podcasters higher base salaries for “No Dunks” than they were getting from “The Starters” at Turner.
In return, “No Dunks” consistently tops the podcast charts. Wasserman said the show is The Athletic’s biggest NBA podcast and one of its highest-rated out of 77 podcasts. He said “No Dunks” consistently breaks one million downloads every month.
According to Chartable, “No Dunks” ranks among the Top 20 Basketball podcasts in the US, and is firmly in the Top 5 in countries including Canada, Australia, and the Philippines.
The show’s success has afforded its creators some autonomy at The Athletic. They’ve branched out with podcasts including the Formula One show “No Brakes,” baseball podcast “No Bunts,” and “No Buffs,” which is about the reality show, “Survivor.”
These are low-cost, low-energy experiments that could hit, and also allow the “No Dunks” group some reprieve from talking purely about the NBA.
“Providing them with other creative outlets actually makes their NBA content even better and keeps it more fresh and engaging and fun because they themselves are having more fun doing it,” Wasserman said.
The Athletic’s original deal for “No Dunks” licensed only the show’s audio. But “No Dunks” is also on other platforms including YouTube, where it has more than 50,000 subscribers. The Athletic licensed the video portion of the show when it inked a second contract with the creators last year, Doyle said.
“No Dunks” is now signed with The Athletic until 2025, a stretch that would equal the band’s time with Turner.
As a part of the deal, San Francisco-headquartered The Athletic helped finance a new studio for “No Dunks” in the producer Doyle’s garage in Atlanta, where the five creators have worked since their Turner days.
They chose to record in Doyle’s garage, hearkening back to where it all started, since the hosts live nearby.
While the creators’ cheerful personalities cultivated a loyal fan base over 16 years — hardcore fans have even gotten tattoos of the group, Wasserman said — it’s this practicality and work ethic that brought “No Dunks” back to Doyle’s garage more established and secure than ever before.
“We use the washroom in his house,” Skeets joked. “It’s bear washroom,” Doyle said.