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Why Derek Jeter’s New Sports Site Is Destined to Succeed

Derek Jeter, less than a week removed from Yankees pinstripes, has launched a new media platform that promises to shake up the sports and marketing worlds: The Players’ Tribune.

Barely a day old and already generating tons of press, the publishing venture has sky-high ambitions, which Jeter revealed on the site in an open letter titled “The Start of Something New”:

“My goal for the site is to ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information, bringing fans closer than ever to the games they love.”

With Jeter’s clout and connections, and given the state of the modern sports media landscape, that lofty goal is certainly not out of reach.

“MAKE SPORTS WHOLE AGAIN”

Will Jeter’s site work? That was the topic of conversation at Advertising Week‘s “Sports Journalism and Branded Content: A New Model” panel on Wednesday evening.

“There’s a gap between fans and athletes,” said Jaymee Messler, CMO of Excel Sports Management. Athletes don’t trust the current media landscape overrun by “journalists who can pick and choose what they end up using for a story,” she said.

That’s causing athletes to hold back when talking to reporters, and, in turn, fans are distancing themselves. “The whole sports journalism world is really fans talking to fans,” said Jason Marks, who serves as executive creative director of The Players’ Tribune’s agency of record, Partners+Napier.

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Photo by Jenny McCabe

A common thread from Jeter’s letter extended to the panel: The chain of open communication between fans and athletes is broken, and The Players’ Tribune aims to be that chain’s missing link. Its mission, Marks said, is to “make sports whole again.”

Its tagline? “If the game could talk, the players would be its voice.”

LONGFORM SOCIAL

Fans don’t follow athletes on social media to hear canned quotes. They follow them because Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the best places to get athletes’ pure, unfiltered thoughts.

That said, social media has limitations.

“It’s very reactionary,” said Mark Grande, the Tribune’s head of content, and athletes often use regrettable candor that taints their public image.

What makes the Tribune different is its emphasis on what Grande called “longform social,” or thoughtful, story-driven content through which athletes talk directly to fans. The Players’ Tribune hopes to be an innovative digital platform, the kind that gives athletes the tools they need to tell the stories—from hard-hitting commentaries to revelations of locker-room shenanigans—worth sharing, as well as the editorial insight to help them do it right.

AUTHENTICITY: THE KEY FOR BRANDS AND FANS

In his final at-bat in the final inning of his final game at Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter hit a walk-off RBI single to beat the Baltimore Orioles. Minutes later, with thunderous applause echoing through the stadium and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” on the loudspeakers, Jeter walked slowly to shortstop. There, he knelt in the dirt before returning, one last time, to the Yankees dugout.

It was a cinematic moment, one whose authentic emotional intensity—tearful reminiscence from Jeter being met with audible adoration from fans—was almost palpable. And it’s that authenticity, according to Gary Hoenig, founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and content consultant for Jeter Publishing, that The Players’ Tribune aims to recreate in sports journalism.

“When you’re working with someone with star power,” he said, “authenticity is huge. When it’s fake, it feels fake.”

No matter the type of content—miniseries, podcasts, comedic videos, “Snow Fall“-esque parallax pieces of longform—The Players’ Tribune maintains it will not publish anything that isn’t original and honest.

FLIPPING THE PERSPECTIVE

You normally see an athlete through a brand’s lens—as in Gatorade’s recent viral commercial with Jeter, or Nike’s famous “Failure” spot with Michael Jordan. But the Tribune, Marks said, is the reverse: “You’re going to see a brand through the athlete’s perspective.”

That doesn’t mean that brands will have complete editorial dominion over athletes. Hoenig likened the sports media world to a noisy 24/7 sports bar, where serious conversations (good storytelling) must be had outside, and where you don’t want someone (a brand) forcefully telling you what to say. The Tribune’s collaborations between brands and athletes will be the nexus of that autonomous conversation.

The Players’ Tribune will not have paid media like banner ads, a necessary workaround to avoid brands’ competitive conflicts. But it will feature sponsored content—an increasingly popular model adopted by upstart digital publishers like BuzzFeed and Upworthy.

“You’re not going to see a piece of content sponsored by Toyota next to one sponsored by Kia,” Marks said. Will the brands that already sponsor athletes become natural first clients for The Players’ Tribune? Messler gave the classic no-answer answer: “It’ll be a case-by-case basis.”

In the end, the execution comes down to working around an athlete’s desires. “Some of them just want to sit around and talk about Game of Thrones,” Hoenig said.

THE FUTURE NEAR AND FAR

While the Tribune will be fully launched, and its athlete editors revealed, over the next few weeks, its first story, a heartfelt editorial about domestic violence by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, was published yesterday. Not all the site’s content will be so poignant or about so controversial a topic, but it will be a mix of day-to-day ruminations and emotionally resonant, big-font-headline pieces. Hoenig cited LeBron James’ letter about returning to Cleveland, a collaboration with Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins, as a model for what The Players’ Tribune could publish.

But is the Tribune just for stories by the Jeters and LeBrons of the sports world, or is everyone—from Triple-A to the Hall of Fame—welcome?

Hoenig smiled. “A great story needs to be told,” he said. “Period.”

Image by Julie Jacobson
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