Power to the players: The Players' Tribune gives athletes a new media relations move

Kevin Durant's bombshell decision pushed the NBA's center of gravity even further to the west and highlighted athletes' evolving relationship with the media.

Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, and announced the move on The Players' Tribune
Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, and announced the move on The Players' Tribune

When NBA superstar Kevin Durant announced on Monday that he was joining the Golden State Warriors, he didn’t call a press conference or a favorite beat reporter or stage a special on ESPN.

Instead, the 27-year-old forward explained the choice he made to jump ship from the Oklahoma City Thunder and thanked the city for teaching him about "family and what it means to be a man" in an editorial in The Players’ Tribune.

Founded in 2014 by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, the outlet bills itself as a platform that gives athletes an unfiltered first-person perspective. For Durant’s announcement, it did that and more, allowing the NBA all-star to control the message while saying something that made his hometown fans very unhappy.

"They’re managing the message, controlling the message, and also, frankly, taking it out of the hands of a third party to run with," says Shawn McBride, EVP for sports at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment. "In some ways, [athletes are] avoiding any hard feelings that might occur if you give it to a beat writer or national writer or columnist."

Rick French, chairman and CEO of French|West|Vaughan, notes that he expects athletes to continue using the website, even if journalists are jealous they didn’t get the story.

"Agents and players alike know that traditional media outlets will cite Players Tribune pieces, so they have little incentive to sit down and face questions from journalists," French said, via email. "I don’t see the trend reversing itself anytime soon because the number one complaint by players is that they are ‘misquoted.’"

Inquiries to The Players Tribune seeking comment weren’t returned.

A decision, not The Decision
Durant’s announcement evokes a comparison with LeBron James’ choice in July 2010 to depart the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. (He boomeranged home after winning two championships in South Beach to win a title with the Cavs last month). But aside from a basketball superstar eschewing one team for another – and the reactions of torment from hometown fans – that’s where the comparison ends.  

James and ESPN hyped and televised his announcement, called "The Decision," putting the spotlight on his desire to "take his talents to South Beach" instead of playing for his blue collar hometown’s team. Meanwhile, Durant emphasized his growth as a human being, striking the same humanistic tone James took when he humbled himself and announced his return to Cleveland in 2014 in Sports Illustrated. (Perhaps not coincidentally, The Players’ Tribune was launched in October 2014, shortly after Jeter’s final game and months after James’ decision to return to the Cavs).

Unlike the drama of James’ decision, which was seen as a televised betrayal in the eyes of many fans, Durant simply "ripped off the Band-AID," McBride adds. "Why let it fester and create drama and frustration? He announced a deadline and stuck to it."

"These are emotional, seminal moments, and sometimes we lose sight of that because there’s so much money involved," he adds.

Bryan Harris, COO and managing partner at Taylor, agrees, recalling Durant’s "class and humility." Durant paid an emotional homage to his family and friends during his MVP acceptance speech in May 2014, before turning the spotlight on his mother.

That public image could pay dividends in the future, Harris says.

"If you maintain that same class and composure people are used to seeing you act with, it certainly helps in managing your brand," Harris explains. "If you become a different person, it can only exacerbate things. Maybe if he becomes less amenable to the media, people think he’s become jaded by playing in a bigger market with a bigger spotlight. It’ll add fuel to the fire. But a lot of it will be judged on the court. If the Warriors tank, which seems highly unlikely, that just casts a pall over this whole move."

Athletes sharing such legacy-defining announcements in a controlled environment is becoming more common. There’s a certain level of comfort and control, and they give fans, both the hot- and level-headed, time to digest potentially devastating news.

"Media relations are changing considerably," Harris says. "More and more, it’s managed by the athlete."

McBride recalls that Tiger Woods was one of the first high-profile athletes to take this approach, with his website serving as a news source for journalists during his infidelity scandal.

"It was that whole idea of, unfortunately for our world, cutting out the middle man a little bit and taking the message directly to the fans," McBride says. "Now, any well-informed fan is going to know that these messages are carefully crafted and oftentimes there’s assistance given. But it still is the athlete’s direct point-of-view or opinion."

James’ former teammate in Miami, Dwayne Wade, also put a softer edge on his decision to leave the Heat for the Chicago Bulls this week. Although news of his departure was widely reported beforehand, the all-star guard co-hosted Live with Kelly on Thursday, where he discussed his choice to switch teams.

Athletes still have to face the press
Controlled and effective message or not, journalists still have column inches to fill. Reporters and commentators are speculating if the former MVP, hungry for a championship, took the path of least resistance. Has KD given up being a competitor? Will he drop out of his contract a year from now? Is LeBron James now the underdog?

So when should Durant resume his normal relationship with the media? As soon as possible, according to Harris. (Durant held his first press conference since joining the Warriors on Thursday).

"That approach [that TPT provides] only goes so far," Harris explains. "You will have to respond and react to an enormous amount of attention coming from all angles in the media, and you have to be consistent and balanced in your approach. You will be hit in real time with a lot of questions and criticisms. You have to be prepared for that and stay on message with what you announced originally."

However, the chances the former MVP can win over hearts and minds while speaking to the media are slim, French adds.

"You can’t hide from the media glare when you’re in the public eye, so his tone needs to be one of openness, [and he should] address any questions as best he can, thank Thunder owner Clay Bennett and head coach Billy Donovan, as well as the Oklahoma City fans that supported him, and then move on," he added, via email. "Because the fact is that when NBA camps open in the fall, he will be re-asked all of the same questions again and forced to answer them a second time before he is allowed to concentrate on winning a championship with the Warriors."

Nike and Under Armour (kind of) on the same squad
Durant’s decision not only combines his seven-foot wingspan with reigning MVP Stephen Curry’s quick release, it also forces a marriage of sorts between their sponsors.

"You [have] Durant, who is a major face of Nike, now teammates with Under Armour’s NBA guy, Stephen Curry," McBride notes. "LeBron aside, you have two of the biggest guys for their respective shoe companies on the same team."

Sports marketers are eagerly looking forward to seeing how the two apparel giants respond, he adds.

"No doubt, there’s going to be new creative, and a new ad campaign with Durant. But again, Curry is on the Under Armour Mount Rushmore, along with [New England Patriots quarterback Tom] Brady and [Olympic swimmer Michael] Phelps," McBride explains. "You’re looking at an arms race between these two brands in basketball. If anyone speculates that might create tension or issues, that’s ridiculous. I think this is more of a kind of fun thing to see how it plays out."

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