In a move that could soon shift the balance of power in the sports media industry, athletes are set to become their own brand communicators – potentially bypassing already established outlets – thanks to a new venture fronted by Derek Jeter.
The former New York Yankees captain, famous for his reticence with the press during his long tenure in the sport, launched The Players’ Tribune on October 1, with a blog posted on the site’s homepage. In time, it could be seen as the piece of content that changed the sports media landscape forever.
The following day, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was unveiled as a senior editor, as he penned a piece about domestic violence in an effort to address the controversies that have dogged the NFL in recent weeks.
Billed as "If the game could talk, the players would be its voice," the site’s goal is to allow athletes to tell their stories from a first-person perspective, said Gary Hoenig, founding editor, ESPN The Magazine, and chief content consultant of Jeter Publishing, at an Advertising Week panel discussion on Wednesday.
"Today, you have to control your own media and intellectual property," he added. "People who own their own valuable content are not so quick to give it away. This is a case of people who are very valuable saying we want to control it."
Other panelists included Matt Dowshen, MD, Partners + Napier NYC; Jason Marks, executive creative director, Partners + Napier NYC; Jaymee Messler, CMO, Excel Sports and Management; and Mark Grande, VP, content and partnerships at The Players’ Tribune.
Although the website wants to "bring the world of sports back in balance," the outlet sets up potential conflicts with sports media outlets that are also vying for the biggest scoops in an already oversaturated industry. For instance, Wilson waited until the launch of the Tribune – blanking other outlets – to enter the debate on domestic violence and reveal his past as a bully in school, stating: "I wanted to be open and address something that’s important, timely, and relevant."
It opens up a new world of possibilities and intrigue for athletes, sports fans, and brands. The revered Jeter, who is an exemplary and prolific brand ambassador, said he wanted to give athletes the opportunity to "connect directly with fans with no filters" and be their own editors.
However, the Tribune will also set alarm bells off in sports media outlets and Wilson’s penned piece will certainly have editors raising their eyebrows. Now that athletes can be a part of team Jeter, will they bypass Sports Illustrated or ESPN if they have a significant announcement, such as retirement, an impending move, or injury to report? It also begs the question: Would LeBron James have chosen The Players’ Tribune to confirm his move back to the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this year, instead of Sports Illustrated, had the Tribune existed? These are questions that will come into play in the not-so-distant future.
Hoenig insisted the site would simply try to complement what already exists in the marketplace, but many will wonder if this is possible in an ultra competitive environment.
"There is value in authenticity. If we can capture that, it should be a good thing," he said. "The purest opportunities are those genuine relationships. We don’t want to get in the way of others, but if we set a different standard, it might open up some new possibilities in the industry."
On the Tribune, athletes will have final say over what is posted online, which is part of an overall ambition to bridge the gap between the players and the fans, added Hoenig.
"People spend hours shooting holes in what athletes say in press conferences," he noted. "Why do you think they say these things? It is because they don’t trust athletes because they don’t say anything that can be misconstrued. So if athletes want to have that honest conversation, it should be of value."
Brands will also be curious to see how the platform performs, as opportunities will become available for them to get involved. But the site will be careful when it comes to brand conflicts. For example, if Powerade wanted to sponsor a Jeter blog, it would not be allowed to do so, because of his relationship with Gatorade. Jeter has also insisted that the players will have the final say – not only on content posted to the site, but also brand activations, which create new opportunities for advertisers, said Marks.
"Usually, we are looking at the athlete through the lens of a brand," he said. "You normally create the script, send it off, and then make some changes, but with this, that process flips as you will see the brands from an athlete’s perspective.
"Collaboration and authenticity are two main things. When you are working with someone who has star power, authenticity is huge. If it feels fake, then it looks fake. This is an opportunity to be one of the most authentic brand places in the game."
Messler, who has worked with Jeter for several years, said that athletes being their own communicators eliminates any level of discomfort they feel around journalists and allows them to tell the stories they want to be told.
"We are giving them the tools to create any type of content they want," she noted. "There is a gap between athletes and fans and part of that is that athletes aren’t as open as they can – or should – be.
"We can all play in the same sandbox, but this can only make what’s already in the media space better. If an athlete sits with a reporter for a length of time, a lot of times the journalist will pick and choose what they end up using. The headlines become something different than what was intended, so what happens is there isn’t as much comfort or openness. This site is supposed to complement what is out there, but also make athletes more comfortable when providing that content."
Athletes can now be a part of team Jeter and have complete control of their messages and brand endorsements or take their chances with other outlets.
The former Yankees captain – just days after his retirement from baseball – has ripped up the conventional rules of the sports media industry and placed the ball firmly in the court of athletes from all sports. It will be interesting to see what they do next with it.