Shaping the Narrative in Digital Sports Media

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.

8 comments

  1. Shaping the narrative really is the key descriptor for The Player’s Tribune! It lets raw content that athletes approve of become circulated rather than sound bytes that may be regrettable in the euphoria of a postgame win or in the frustration of a heated mic’d up in game moment; instead ESPN distributes the content that is released without tampering and references The Tribune in their reporting of it. I like that it affords athletes the opportunity to show that they aren’t just performers, and that they have learned things which professional sports have given them a unique perspective on. However, I believe it will come to not only reshape the relationship between broadcaster and sports star, but also team ownership and sports stars as more and more details of the unknown business world of sports come to light.

  2. One of the biggest talks in the NBA is the saying “shut up and dribble”. LeBron James has brought it up in many post game interviews, Kobe Bryant mentioned it in his Oscar winning speech. This idea that athletes should simply be pawns in the game that they play and shouldn’t get to speak up about what they believe is absurd. One of the key ways that this movement to discuss more than just sports is The Tribune. My favorite part about this post because it’s true is the idea that it’s Jeter, LeBron, and Brady that are making these monumental waves. There are a lot of movements that start from the group up, but this charge for athletes to speak up is coming from the top down, which I think is incredible. This concept of shaping the narrative will be something us sports fans will be hearing much more about in the coming years. Great post!

  3. Nice post, I agree with your point that these platform is filling the gap which was limited to the athlete through traditional media. Some of their posts are not appropriate in the traditional sports media such as ESPN TNT. Tribune and Uninterrupted give the players and fans a platform to communicate. When Kevin Love posted his mental health issue, Lebron James and many other players made comments to support him through different social media. Without such platform, we might never hear the story behind those athletes. Apparently not everyone appreciate Tribune and Uninterrupted. A reporter ask Lebron to shut up and dribble on the news because she thinks players shouldn’t speak too much. This went viral and Lebron and other NBA players have fight back to such comment through different social media and interviews. Without such platforms, these arguments might never be heard by the fans through ESPN and TNT.

  4. Awesome post Dan! I think your notion of shaping the narrative is such an interesting point and embodies the essence of what a lot of athletes are attempting to do in today’s environment. As @mikecarillo111 pointed out, the post reminded me of the recent controversy surrounding LeBron James and Laura Ingraham. Ingraham argues there is no place for politics in sports and that James needs to focus on basketball, rather than politics. I think Player’s Tribune fills an important gap caused by this type of thinking, where athletes are expected to be only athletes and not given the space to show other sides of themselves. It does not surprise me that Player’s Tribune has found such success because I think fundamentally most people just want to be heard, and Player’s Tribune gives athletes a platform to speak their own mind and shape their own narrative. While I think it is also about fans and connecting them to players, I think a lot of the success if found in the ability to give players the chance to be heard and for fans to see this vulnerable, authentic side of them.

    i think it is interesting to consider Player Tribune’s success over their competitors, and it seems a large part of it comes from being the first mover in this type of industry. They were able to capture customers, athletes, early on and create a platform that grows from these network effects. As you said, I am definitely interested to see how competitors and substitutes react. Will Fox Sports and ESPN work to take some of their market share or coexist?

    1. I don’t necessarily think that platforms like the Tribune will ever trump behemoths like Fox Sports and ESPN, but I definitely think that they can force them to change their styles. In recent years, ESPN has already shifted its style of programming from strictly sports analysis and highlights to more of an entertainment channel. Its flagship show, Sportscenter, now includes segments such as “Sunday Conversation”, in which they highlight real-life stories involving athletes that transcend sports. I think this is the type of content that we as fans/consumers want to see more of, as it allows us to feel more connected to the athletes and personalities that we follow.

  5. As a big sports fan, I really enjoyed both your presentation and this blog post on Players’ Tribune, which I have never heard of before then. To be honest, I actually had a same issue with this platform after your presentation: How can it be a platform for the athlete-fan interactions when the writings on the website might not be directly written by athletes? Aren’t players’ Instagram accounts (with photo and videos) truly connect fans with them? Just like you did, I got answers to these questions when I saw the exact same ESPN’s report on Kevin Love’s Players’ Tribune article about his mental illness. What made Players’ Tribune distinguishable from other social media platforms, I realized, was seriousness and prudence. While interactions through Instagram, per say, are often instant, consumable, and entertaining; contents on Players’ Tribune would be more serious, narrative, and most importantly, long. Love’s confession story has been appreciated by numerous fellow athletes like DeMar DeRozan who also opened up about his battle with depression, and they played significant roles in increasing awareness about inner struggles of superstars. I believed the impact of these conversations would have been lighter if Love posted it on everyday Instagram. In the end, the rise of various platforms is a great response to fans’ needs/wants for closer interactions with their favorite athletes.

  6. Great article, Dan. I think my biggest hang-up with the Players Tribune is the authenticity of the articles, realizing that despite that big byline, the athletes themselves are not actually writing the stories. I was a big fan of the Tribune at first, excited to read each athlete’s story. But over time, I started to notice formulas emerge and many of the pieces started to feel more like PR than honest reflection. The apex of this came in the free agent decision pieces (looking at you, KD). But the Kevin Love story, and all the athlete testimonials (DeRozen, Oubre, and so on) sharing concerns about mental health have definitely softened my cynicism by quite a bit. In the past, it would have been so much more difficult for Love to be honest about this issue, knowing that he couldn’t, as you put it, control the narrative. But now that he has a platform that is uniquely for him, uniquely equipped to handle the voice of the professional athlete, he can far more easily be honest and vulnerable in the public sphere. No amount of ghostwriting makes that any less admirable, and I had to give Love a lot of credit for speaking up. One thing is for sure, I can again appreciate the value of the Tribune.

  7. Really great follow up post. There’s about as much good content here as in your presentation!

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