A few weeks ago, I presented in class on the Players’ Tribune, a digital media startup founded by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter that allows professional athletes to connect directly with their fans in their own words. The Players’ Tribune is trying to alleviate the struggle that professional athletes go through in order to get their voice heard in their own way. Since the beginning of Jeter’s career in the mid 1990’s, the relationship between professional athletes and the media has transformed drastically, creating a dynamic in which athletes have to walk on eggshells in fear of their words being misconstrued.
While I presented on how the Players’ Tribune has grown since 2014, how its editorial team interacts with its athletes and how it has created successful content, there was one piece that I did not go into great detail about because I simply couldn’t put my finger on the answer at the time. What exactly makes the Players’ Tribune unique in the digital landscape? I referenced in my presentation how Blake Griffin has referred to it as another form of Twitter for athletes, I knew that there had to be a deeper answer.
I didn’t start to develop my answer to this question until I was watching SportsCenter one morning a few weeks ago when this segment aired:
As I was watching the clip and learning more about this news, I couldn’t help but think, “This would have been a great example of a Players’ Tribune piece to use in my presentation!” It didn’t end here though, as this post came across my Twitter feed shortly thereafter:
Former NBA player Steve Nash penned a piece for the Players’ Tribune in response to the school shooting that took place a week prior in Parkland, Florida. He wasn’t writing the piece as a professional athlete standing on a soapbox, but rather as a father of children that he sends off to school every day. Nash wasn’t writing about his fond memories of throwing alley-oops to Amar’e Stoudemire, but rather a topic that everyone could relate to.
As I reflected on both of these pieces, I realized that I found the answer to the question that I couldn’t quite put my finger on a week prior. The power and importance of the Players’ Tribune comes from the ability to shape the narrative. Shaping the narrative. The million-dollar phrase finally hit me. Not only is it about professional athletes shaping the narrative, but doing so in an appropriate setting. Kevin Love’s piece from the Players’ Tribune was picked up by all national sports networks and was even highlighted on most of the morning talk shows the next day, but would it have been appropriate for Kevin Love to go on ESPN and talk about his mental health issues? Let’s say he revealed this story to the world on live television, only to be followed up in the next segment about the most recent study of how CTE affects retired football players. How would that look? That’s a drastic example, but you get the point. Just because a news story involves a professional athlete does not mean that it is appropriate to be reported by a traditional sports outlet like ESPN or Fox Sports, but they still need to be heard, which is where the Players’ Tribune comes in. Jeter has made the point time and time again to state that the Players’ Tribune was not created to cover what happens on game day because there are more than enough outlets that do that already. The company is filling a gap, giving athletes artistic freedom that was once limited to them through traditional media outlets. Even the plain black and white landscape of the Players’ Tribune elicits the image that the most important part of the experience on the website is the words on the screen, nothing else.
The Players’ Tribune technology behind its business is not groundbreaking. Its technology can be easily replicated. While it is a considered to be a digital business, the company’s value comes from the content that it develops, which just happens to be distributed on a digital platform. If Derek Jeter were to have created this company at the beginning of his career rather than the end, he might have created a television network as opposed to a website, but he didn’t because the way in which we as a society consume content is vastly different than it was in the mid 1990’s. Consumers are cutting the cable cords as massive rates and cable networks are having a difficult time keeping up with the changing landscape. In 2017, ESPN and Fox Sports each lost almost 1 million subscribing homes. The loss in viewership was so big that it caused Fox Sports to shift its website to publishing strictly video content (a move that has not worked out I might add). It has led these media tycoons to attempt to beef up their digital presence in order to combat the new way in which its subscribers consume content.
As a strictly digital platform, the Players’ Tribune can focus all of its power on its content pushed out through its website and social media platforms. Its recent investment has been met with a lot of praise, especially as it is currently using it to have athletes across sports interact about the NCCA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
As I mentioned at the end of my presentation, the Players’ Tribune is not alone in this new digital sports media space. One of its older competitors is Uininterrupted, which was founded by Lebron James in 2015 in conjunction with Bleacher Report. At its launch, Uninterrupted differentiated itself from the Players’ Tribune by sticking strictly to video content. The platform began by posting one to two-minute video clips of high profile athletes such as Odell Beckham Jr., Johnny Manziel (#ComebackSZN), and Carmelo Anthony. The clips on the platform are designed to be based on personal reflections rather than be intended for news purposes. While Uninterrupted still does not post text content, much like the Players’ Tribune it has launched its own podcast network. Most recently, Cleveland Browns OL Joe Thomas took to the platform to announce his retirement from the NFL.
The newest competitor in this landscape is the Religion of Sports, which is a six-part docuseries set to premiere on November 15th. Founded by Gotham Chapra, Michael Strahan, and Tom Brady, the docuseries is designed to showcase instances in which sports impact societies and cultures, helping to answer the question of why sports matter. In order to drum up interest in the new venture, this team created the recently released Tom vs. Time 6 part docuseries on Facebook Watch. The docuseries chronicles New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady over the past year, giving us an inside look as to how a 40-year-old professional athlete stays in peak physical condition in order to play one of the world’s most demanding sports at the highest possible level. The series has been met with rave reviews, as each of the six episodes has been viewed over 7 million times thus far. Whenever a new episode was released, it would be the talk of all sports shows in the Boston for a considerable amount of time. This says a lot about the docuseries since 5 of the 6 episodes were released in the week leading up to Super Bowl LII.
As a Patriots fan, I loved the series, as it was the first time in which we as fans got to see inside Brady’s life and learn what makes him the greatest quarterback of all time. I think that speaks to the popularity of not only Tom vs. Time, but to all of the content that has been created on these three newly established platforms. Tom Brady had full editorial control over what went into each episode, just like Joe Thomas talked how his retirement in the way he wanted to, and how Kevin Love spoke about his mental health in his own words. They weren’t forced to go on a cable network and be answer questions that they couldn’t filter. These platforms allow them to shape the narrative and get their message across how they want to be heard.
In the process, these athletes are creating a brand for themselves. They are creating themselves in their own image that they can they profit off of in the future. Tom Brady can use this docuseries to sell the TB12 Method and what it can mean for future athletic performance. Kevin Love can use his story as a means of becoming an advocate for mental health issues. The examples go on and on. Shaping the narrative allows these athletes to do what they want with their message. They are no longer tied down to the regulations of media tycoons that once attempted to silence athletes from speaking out.
Podcasts have become a recent trend among active and retired professional athletes such as Draymond Green, Brandon Browner, CC Sabathia, and Richard Jefferson. Quotes from these podcasts reach traditional media outlets from time to time, but the content created in this area has not gained as much traction for a very simple reason. Stars attract attention. If you look at the founders of the three platforms mentioned above, there is something that they all have in common. Jeter, Lebron and Brady are all considered to be sports icons of the 2000’s. When these three do something, people notice, people listen, and people consume. Part of what has made them successful is the network of talent that have been able to attract and convince to use their platform, and that is why they will continue to be successful. This is the cutting edge of sports media, and it’s up to the ESPN’s and Fox Sports’ of the world to figure out how to coexist and benefit from this new influx of digital sports content.