Media

Most Valuable Publishers

When most athletes announce their retirements, they wipe away tears during a press conference and answer banal questions from beat reporters. When Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant told the world he was going to hang up his Nikes for good, he wrote a poem.

What’s more noteworthy than the quality of Bryant’s free verse is where the poem was published: on The Players’ Tribune, a sports media publication that lets athletes create their own content and share it directly with fans. In this system, there’s no need for traditional sports journalists to act as intermediaries. The athletes get the byline, and the readers presumably get access to a more personal story. When the process works well, it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about sports media. Bryant’s post was so popular, in fact, that it crashed the website’s servers soon after going live.

“We’re not beholden to a particular news cycle or media cycle. We’re spending a bit more time with the athletes versus them coming off an adrenalized performance and having a microphone put in front of them,” explained Jessica Robertson, executive editor at The Players’ Tribune. “That time and access allows us to go a little deeper and be more thoughtful about the stories that we’re telling.”

The Players’ Tribune, founded in 2014 by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, isn’t the only new media company giving athletes the chance to be publishers. The Cauldron, a site that runs articles on Medium from both journalists and sports figures, became partners with Sports Illustrated in the fall of 2015. And a few months later, Uninterrupted, a video platform started by four-time NBA MVP LeBron James that publishes behind-the-scenes clips through Bleacher Report, received $16 million from Warner Bros. and Turner Sports.

The playing field is changing out of necessity. With non-stop coverage on TV networks and across the web, beat reporting is more complementary than essential. The Associated Press uses an algorithm to automatically generate game recaps. News typically breaks over social media, and players speak directly to fans through social profiles, where they often have greater reach than major publishers. Bryant, for instance, has 9 million Twitter followers; when he posted the link to his retirement poem, it was retweeted 130,000 times. Creating a sports media platform that capitalizes on this power and casts athletes as contributors is just a savvy progression.

From a financial perspective, it’s also significant that these players have strong bonds with brands. These companies can get more exposure for their athletes in a format that’s less obtrusive than traditional advertising. In turn, the athletes have another valuable arena to build their personal brands. In a recent article, Wall Street Journal reporter Steven Perlberg referred to the trend as “a kind of content marketing, but for athletes.”

The Players’ Tribune has already teamed with companies like Powerade, Dove, and Built With Chocolate Milk. And this January, the publication entered into a corporate partnership with American Family Insurance. According to Adweek, the collaboration will ultimately lead to branded essays, photo diaries, podcasts, videos, and events.

“It’s really to bring to life stories and theories and ideas that we would do if we had infinite resources,” Robertson said. “It’s sort of a subtle integration there … a story and a series that we would be doing anyway on our site.”

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This fluid intersection of editorial, public relations, and branding makes for an innovative approach, but it also brings up credibility issues. A month before Bryant’s retirement poem was published, ESPN reported that he had made “a significant investment in the platform” as part of The Players’ Tribune’s $15 million Series B funding. With so much money coming directly from the athlete-contributors themselves, there’s a built-in conflict of interest—an expectation that the athletes will only produce positive stories that benefit them.

That’s not always the case, but many of the articles and videos on both The Players Tribune and The Cauldron tend to be inspirational and introspective, rather than critical. To their credit, a number of posts have still made an impact. Last April on The Players’ Tribune, former NHL veteran Daniel Carcillo filmed a touching tribute to a former teammate who committed suicide, explaining how players need help dealing with mental health issues as they transition to retirement. On The Cauldron, former NFL offense lineman Kasey Studdard penned an article titled “It’s Time to Stop Using the Word ‘Retard'” that revealed his struggles with a learning disability. These examples of advocacy journalism would have no problem holding their own next to any piece of traditional editorial written by a journalist.

Robertson stressed that there is oversight in which editors at The Players’ Tribune workshop ideas with the contributors to make sure the subject matter fits the site’s direction and tone. “We have a certain level of quality that we want to maintain, and we do have some filtering so it doesn’t become [a PR push], and it will never become that,” she explained. “It was never intended to be that. We are very mindful about the athletes’ stories that we tell.”

“You’ve got to make sure you do your due diligence,” added Jamie O’Grady, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Cauldron. “You don’t want to be a PR shop. You want to publish real stuff, so that does require you as a media outlet to vet these things and to verify what they’re saying is accurate.”

But by nature, first-person stories from athletes will never actually be the ‘real stuff.’ The assumption is that people who come to this type of content aren’t looking for balance, skepticism, or hard news that requires anonymous sources—they’re looking for LeBron James to give a tour of his shoe closet and talk about his Nike deal on Uninterrupted. During a time when opinion blogging and vlogging has cemented itself as part of editorial culture, that’s probably okay. Don’t forget, old-school journalism has its shortcomings too: Athletes regularly hold back or offer clichés when they’re taking things one game at a time.

Content created by athletes has its place, as does established sports journalism. As Robertson put it: “Traditional media and beat writing is critical to storytelling and information just as much as what it is that we do.”

However, as newspapers downsize, issues of Sports Illustrated get thinner, and sites like Grantland shut down, these new ventures could give us a glimpse into the future of sports media. Athletes are already more than comfortable talking to the press and putting out their own content on networks like Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. Now, they’re just adapting those same skills for a different platform.

“The traditional notions of monetization are largely out the window,” O’Grady said. “Display ads and native ads are paying less and less… and the audience, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t want to see ads. They want great content, and they don’t want to pay for it. So it’s a really weird spot to be in. You’re going to have to figure out how to monetize in nontraditional ways, and athlete content may be one way to do that. If you’re just going to rely on the digital side, you’re going to have to be creative.”

Even though Kobe Bryant has retired from the NBA, his creativity is going to keep him from being unemployed. In fact, he’s technically been working two jobs this whole time. And now that he’s done playing, he can put more time into his official role at The Players’ Tribune: editorial director.

Image by Maurizio Di Iorio
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