Play time? How seriously should we take the athlete media takeover?

Backed by some high-profile names, The Players’ Tribune and Designated Player have entered the sports media market and planted flags in unchartered territory. In conversation with key executives from both companies, SportsPro seeks to uncover their intentions.

Play time? How seriously should we take the athlete media takeover?

It used to be known as propaganda. Now it has a far less loaded name: content.

The idea of an athlete putting out their own editorial and owning the means to tell the story they want to tell would have seemed absurd perhaps even as little as ten years ago. Why would anyone trust something with such an obvious angle? The concept only existed in the dreams of PR executives: unfiltered, on message, and no opportunity to be taken ‘out of context’.

Now, in what commentators have labelled the ‘disrupted era’ of sports media, the burgeoning athlete-to-consumer channel is realising that PR agency dream but perhaps not in a way that can be so easily discredited. In a land long before ‘Tom vs Time’, athletes attempting to tell their story too often leaned on the very executives whose job it was to ensure there was no story to tell.

Instead of the documentaries and first-person-pieces that now litter the sporting landscape - such as the aforementioned Facebook Watch series that demonstrated the unique life of Tom Brady, the ageing star quarterback in the National Football League (NFL), or Discovery’s intimate ‘Being Serena’ - fans hoping to get a glimpse of their sporting idols’ point of view did so through ‘tell-all’ interviews or oft-redacted autobiographies.

Like most things in the 21st century, this shift can be explained by social media. What is a status update or a tweet if not a shrunken first-person opinion piece? Likewise, an Instagram video is nothing if not a micro-form personal documentary. Therefore it is logical that athletes with newfound direct-to-fan outlets would graduate from 280 characters to 2,000 words, or from six seconds to 60 minutes.

Perhaps it is fitting that one of the central figures in this narrative is most renowned as a leadoff hitter. Derek Jeter ditched the mitt in September 2014 but did not wait long to reveal his next move. “I’ve made my fair share of mistakes with the media,” said the baseball icon, just days after hanging up his New York Yankees cap in an interview announcing the launch of his media company, The Players’ Tribune (TPT). “You want players to feel like this is a safe place where they can get their message across how they want to portray it.”

Derek Jeter spent 20 years playing for the New York Yankees, retiring in 2014

He added: “This generation has fun sharing things. How many times do you see someone put something out, and then next thing you know, they’re saying it came across the wrong way, it was out of context, it’s not what I meant?”

Not even four years on, having shared the stories of more than 1,800 athletes, and after finding success with first-person editorial content from the playing field in North America, TPT is setting up overseas. Spanish soccer star Gerard Pique, a man with fingers in so many pies it is impressive he is still able to type, has helped fund TPT’s move into the European market through his Kosmos investment vehicle, introducing the platform to the likes of Neymar, Gianluigi Buffon and James Rodriguez.

Along the way there have been some notable coups for TPT. Most high-profile was arguably Kevin Durant, an athlete who is himself no stranger to the world of investment. The former National Basketball Association (NBA) MVP took to TPT to explain his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors. There is a nice contrast here, one that is revealing in the context of where media in general is heading.

In 2009, when LeBron James made ‘The Decision’ to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and head for Miami’s South Beach, it was revealed via a 75-minute TV special on ESPN. Durant’s move to the Bay Area in 2016 was the biggest since James’ switch, and instead of creating a sequel to ‘The Decision’ the now two-time NBA champion chose to pen a 354-word essay on TPT.

We are trying to create what we think a new media business looks like in the 21st century for sports

“The Players’ Tribune was set up to give the athletes a platform where they can have 100 per cent control over their story, with things that they want to talk about to their fans and in a way that’s not twisted or turned into headlines,” explains TPT chief executive Jeff Levick during a call with SportsPro. “We’re not claiming to do journalism; we’re basically here to tell stories and what we’ve found in the States is that when players talk about things that they’ve never spoken about, that is the story and that becomes the news, and then the journalists can then pick up and cover it and dig deeper.

“We believe that our platform allows stories to be told that journalists would never have access to because the players aren’t willing to share their stories with journalists because of the uncertainty of how it might be told.”

Herein lies the appeal of TPT as a platform for stories only the athlete can tell. It is taking the perceived weakness of athlete-produced content - the ability of the storyteller to dictate their own narrative - and turning it into its greatest strength. So instead of a piece of content where a reader feels like they are being fed a story, instead they are getting the insight no one else could give them.

That does not work unless the output comes across as being authentic, even if TPT’s team of uncredited writers and producers help sculpt the athlete’s vision. But it was another NBA move, the high-profile trade of Boston Celtics fan-favourite Isaiah Thomas to the Cavs last year, that set the stage for TPT’s high watermark. Thomas’ farewell letter to the Celtics faithful was unflinching in its honesty, heart-wrenching in its detail and perfectly encapsulated the platform’s purpose. It was a piece the Boston sports media would have killed for, and instead it went to an outlet owned in part by Kobe Bryant.

Aside from offering athletes the opportunity to tell their own version of events, TPT uses its star power to get that version of events ahead of the traditional media. It is an approach also used by another athlete-owned media venture working more in the field of video than written content.

Derek Jeter launched The Players' Tribune in October 2014 following his retirement from baseball

Designated Player, a production company founded by David Villa, the Spanish soccer player, is a partner of TPT but it is not merely a mirror video arm. Launched in February and funded by the New York City forward, the firm focuses not just on athlete-driven stories but also the culture around soccer, utilising its best-known asset whilst he is still in the dressing room.

“David Villa is active,” explains Designated Player general manager David Guerra. “From our point of view, from our part of the business, we are trying to engage with him as much as possible in as many pieces of content as possible because we understand the leverage that he brings to soccer not only here in the US, but also internationally.”

Villa, 36, has enlisted his agent and Designated Player co-founder Victor Ornate to run the company along with Guerra, freeing him up to focus on his day job - although he does retain a level of input that will increase once his playing days come to an end.

“We have different winning points on building relationships,” says Ornate. “One is David, David’s contacts and his knowledge, and the other one is that we know how to work with players, we know what players like and what they don’t like, because of the experience that David has gained over his career.

“So, when a brand wants to produce content around soccer we have a unique perspective to help them to produce this content, and not only from a production side.”

Sooner or later, Villa will hang up his boots but Guerra is prepared to shift focus away from the Spaniard when the time comes. “We are trying to create content with him but of course creating content around other players, the fans, all the things that matter to the culture of soccer here in the US,” he says.

“When he retires we will create content around also other players. That means that he will be part of the company but probably not in the role that we want right now.”

Star power can, of course, be used as leverage to gain the kind of access that other companies can only hope for. During the recent Fifa World Cup, Designated Player worked with NBC’s Spanish-language network Telemundo - an opportunity that arose mainly because of Villa’s involvement.

David Villa joined the MLS in 2015

Leveraging the high-profile nature of the company’s protagonists is a common thread between TPT and Designated Player. However, both firms are keen to ensure the marquee figures serve their wider aims.

“It really isn’t all just about big names,” says Levick, who joined TPT from music streaming service Spotify in June of last year. “We wanted to launch in Europe and we’d like to make a splash and we’d like to show big names and quite frankly all names. That’s really what we’ve been doing the last three years in the States.

“We found sometimes that those stories don’t necessarily come from the biggest names. They can come from athletes that people have less interaction with but then we give them an opportunity to learn more about those athletes and connect with them on a level that’s different from what they might know of that player.”

It comes down to storytelling over editorialising. Designated Player knows it has a trump card in Villa, and while there is some crossover with TPT, Guerra insists they have slightly different goals.

“The Player’s Tribune tell things only from the point of view of the athlete, they have a great leverage with the athletes, many of them are owners of the company and they have incredible access,” he explains. “Designated Player is different in the sense that we don’t want to be focused only on the players or the athletes. We love to tell the story of the fans, we love to tell the story of soccer through the eyes of pop culture – American pop culture – so about the fashion, about music, about the food, the travel.”

Asked if a better comparison is with fan-focused content producer Copa90, Guerra becomes vocally animated. “Yes, it’s interesting these two names, we feel that we are more or less in between,” he says. “The Players’ Tribune is more athlete-centric and Copa90 is more fan-centric. We will like to be in between; we feel that there is some space there. If we are able to recreate this culture of soccer for as many different points of view as there are out there, I think there is space for us.”

In terms of establishing an identity, Designated Player has a clear plan but, business-wise, it is early days. By contrast, TPT is further down the road in its development but despite heavy and high-profile backing, it is not yet profitable either.

Speaking to Digiday earlier this year, Levick described the company as “venture-staged, focused on growth”; throughout its early years, TPT has relied on advertising revenue, as well as branded and sponsored content. In 2017, TPT content partners included Samsung, Gatorade, Bank of America, MasterCard and Verizon.

We’re not claiming to do journalism; we’re basically here to tell stories

The Players Tribune chief executive, Jeff Levick

Levick’s take on the business model is that TPT is creating the media company of the future. “We’re not trying to recreate what media companies look like,” he says. “We are trying to create what we think a new media business looks like in the 21st century for sports.

“The unique advantage that we have is that we’re a platform that’s founded by athletes and contributed to by athletes. So, our experience is the athletes see this as their publishing platform and this is their business. [The business] has equally sophisticated investors who really see that this is a journey and also see that this is in its early stages of disruption.”

Levick’s comments speak to the changing nature of the media landscape, which has begun to value video content above all else. Like other media organisations within and outside sport, both TPT and Designated Player are pursuing longer-form video as a means to grow their businesses. TPT has previously tapped Villa’s company for its resources, while it is also producing a 12-part series with Formula One rookie Brandon Hartley and working on a feature film with former NFL player Vernon Turner.

In the case of Designated Player, the emphasis is on getting more established before pursuing those types of bigger projects. “The US is probably the most competitive media market, especially here in New York,” notes Guerra. “You see very clearly how many talented people are here trying to get to the audience and to have access to different sources of either money, investment or exposure in this division.

“For us right now, we are starting to create, little by little, one step at a time, pieces of real content. We’ll be creating this real content, working for brands in the branded content, but also we would love, as time is starting to count on our side, to do more long-format work.

“We have some ideas and we would love to create more content with these long content providers, the Netflixes and the Amazons of the world, but also we would love to collaborate with other companies.

“Having worked in the media world I feel that media companies and journalism is evolving quite a lot. But these huge media companies are evolving not as fast as other companies are evolving. Social media and mobile have changed the way people want to consume things.

“They want to see more access to the player, they want to see these athletes becoming more like the friends of them. Becoming something they can touch, they can understand, they find something that can be also encouraging for them, they find a reference for their lives, they find behind the scenes content that is so much more interesting that it speaks for itself and tells a story that in no other time in history would have been possible.”