SBJ/July 15-21, 2013/In Depth

Athletes find more time in the spotlight

When Michael Strahan first took over from Regis Philbin as the host of ABC’s syndicated daytime morning show, he and his manager decided they would wait before taking on new projects for his management and entertainment company.

“What we decided to do when he got the job was to say ‘no’ to everything for a year,” said Constance Schwartz, Strahan’s manager and partner in Los Angeles-based SMAC Entertainment. “We knew this was going to be big, but we had no idea how big the opportunities were.”

Michael Strahan is a hit as the co-host of ABC’s “Live with Kelly and Michael.”
Photo by: Getty Images
Since becoming co-host of “Live with Kelly and Michael” in October, Strahan, a former NFL defensive end who has been a studio host of “The NFL on Fox” since 2008, has established popularity among a different demographic — women ages 25 to 54. The morning show garnered its highest ratings in six years during the May television sweeps.

It used to be that athletes, when they retired from their sport, had one major opportunity — analyst for a network broadcasting the sport they once played. But that is changing, and one of the reasons why is players like Strahan are becoming known commodities to casual sports fans as well as non-sports fans.

“Each of these guys are creating their own brands and their own businesses and more than ever they have an appetite to do as much as possible, especially when they retire,” said Josh Pyatt, an agent for non-scripted television at entertainment agency WME. “I think people like Michael Strahan have broken the walls down.”

Athletes are being aided by the rise in media outlets that need content, not just on television but on the Internet and on mobile devices, and as more entertainment agencies extend their reach into sports. And, with the explosion of social media, athletes are becoming media personalities known to more people outside of fans of their teams or their sport.

“As people start to see their personality, athletes will have increasing opportunities and will be able to diversify their platforms, not just from the broadcasting booth, but from multiple channels,” said Dhani Jones, a former NFL
linebacker who is hosting two shows on Spike TV.

“Strahan is doing network TV, both in a sports vein and with pop culture, ‘Live with Kelly and Michael,’” Jones said. “I mean, look at that [Strahan’s shows]. That is the ultimate diverse platform. That crosses all boundaries.”

Jones knows Strahan well, as the two were teammates on the New York Giants in the early 2000s. Strahan was a mentor to Jones, not only on the field, but in giving Jones advice with his own aspirations to do television and entertainment work.

Even back then, “Michael was doing stuff all over television,” Jones said. “So as I approached Strahan, I tried to tag along and ask his advice on how to do more and ask him how he did what he did. And he helped me to be able to do some things through his relationships.”

Jones has since hosted, produced or pitched through his production company, 2013 Productions, more than a dozen shows, including non-sports lifestyle shows such as “Dhani Tackles the Globe,” which ran on the Travel Channel in 2009 and 2010. Jones is currently the host of “GT Academy” and “Playbook 360” on Spike TV. Additionally, through his production company, Jones recently sold three pilots to VH1, Bravo and Versus.

Now it’s Jones who often hears from former and current athletes who want advice on how to break into entertainment.

“This is what I am saying to guys who are on the field: If this is something you want to do, you definitely have to do well within the game,” Jones said. If they achieve that, he said, there is a lot more work to do if they want to get into entertainment.

Strahan's former teammate, Dhani Jones, is building a solid entertainment portfolio of his own.
Photo by: Getty Images
That work includes building new relationships and teams in the entertainment world, Jones said. For entertainment work, Jones is managed by Jerry Silbowitz at Size Sports & Entertainment and his agent is Ryan Hayden at United Talent Agency.

“It definitely takes incredible partnerships,” Jones said. “I don’t think anybody comes into the television industry and says, ‘Here, this is my idea, can you make this show happen?’”

Those partnerships include many of the entertainment companies that have been entering the sports business in a small way for several decades and now are major players in sports. That includes Creative Artists Agency, which started a sports talent representation practice, CAA Sports, in 2006 by hiring veteran sports playing agents.

“When CAA was announced that they were going to get into sports, I think the common thought was, ‘All right, is that just an opportunity for an athlete who is going to make a cameo in somebody’s music video or television show?’” said Lowell Taub, a sports marketing agent who joined CAA in 2007 and is now global head of sports endorsements. “And of course those do happen. But CAA did it because it was a diversification of our opportunities.”

CAA now represents more than 700 athletes in the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA, as well as in individual and Olympic sports. Since CAA represents writers, directors and producers of television, film and digital entertainment, it touts its ability to match its athlete clients with entertainment projects. Many athlete clients of the agency are involved in book projects, documentaries, reality shows and motion pictures — and not just in cameos appearing as themselves.

Snowboarder Shaun White showed a comedic bent in “Friends with Benefits” in 2010 and mixed martial arts star Georges St-Pierre was cast as the villain Batroc in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

CAA client Ryan Lochte had a reality show on E!, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do,” which debuted in April, and another Olympic client, Sanya Richards-Ross, has a reality show that will debut on WE TV on July 25.

CAA is exploring other entertainment opportunities for its clients, including mobile apps and video games. Among the clients who have games or apps are Adrian Peterson, Tony Gonzalez, Buster Posey and St-Pierre. “For athletes who are now full day-to-day pop culture touchstones and icons, those doors have opened and a lot of that, obviously, is digitally,” Taub said.

Another entertainment agency that is representing more athletes for entertainment work is WME. Unlike CAA, WME does not represent athletes for on-the-field work. But WME counts retired linebackers Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis among recent clients it has signed for broadcasting and entertainment work.

WME signed Lewis in 2011 and co-represents him with his NFL playing agent, David Dunn, CEO and founder of Athletes First. After the Ravens won the Super Bowl this year and Lewis retired from the sport, WME landed him a broadcast deal with ESPN. But that was only the first step of Lewis’s post-playing career plans. WME is now pitching a non-sports show for Lewis that would show the future Hall of Fame linebacker in a new light.

“He has some reality show ideas that he is going to take out that will not be targeted to a sports kind of network,” Pyatt said. “It will be more towards an entertainment network where he is able to accomplish some of the things he is passionate about.”

In sports, athletes are often represented by a playing contract agent and a marketing agent who may or may not work for the same agency. In entertainment, talent is usually represented by an agent and a manager. WME agents represent Strahan.

Strahan’s management company, SMAC Entertainment, represents athletes other than Strahan for entertainment work, including CAA client Gonzalez and Deion Sanders, as well as Sanders’ alter ego and NFL Network personality, Leon Sandcastle. SMAC Entertainment is talking to the NFL about a sitcom or a movie featuring Sandcastle, Schwartz said.

SMAC, which is also co-owned by Mark Sudak, a music industry executive, has received a number of offers for projects due to Strahan’s success in crossing over to a new audience.

“The priority for Michael is to really build out the production company,” Schwartz said, “And I would say, in the next six months, we will have some really good announcements.”

Schwartz would not reveal details about the projects but said one is a documentary and others involve scripted and non-scripted television shows, with and without a sports theme.

Meanwhile, SMAC Entertainment’s client list could be expanding soon, as a number of athletes have been calling Schwartz and Strahan about managing them for entertainment projects. No surprise, the agency is looking for the proverbial “it factor.”

“Just because someone has a million Twitter followers and is popular and rushes for a hundred yards a game doesn’t mean they are a brand,” Schwartz said. “How do you describe what Dhani has or Deion or Tony or Michael has? It’s like just they have ‘it.’”

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