SBJ/Jan. 4-10, 2016/Media

Jeter’s vision overcomes skeptics

How The Players’ Tribune became a surprise success

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Jon Sakoda met Derek Jeter at a private investment conference hosted by Goldman Sachs about a month after Jeter had launched The Players’ Tribune, his online avenue for athletes to communicate directly to fans.

“We had dinner and he was explaining his vision for the Tribune,” said Sakoda, managing director of the large venture capital firm, New Enterprise Associates.

Sakoda quickly became a fan — of the former New York Yankees shortstop and his plan for the company.

“He wanted to create a platform to allow athletes to connect directly with fans,” Sakoda said. “He saw what was missing in the sports media world, sort of a trusted platform for the athletes to come and own their message, own their content and deliver it directly to fans.”

Editorial director Gary Hoenig (second from left) is shown with President Jaymee Messler, Derek Jeter and New Enterprise Associates’ Jon Sakoda.
Photo by: JED JACOBSOHN / THE PLAYERS’ TRIBUNE


So, impressed by Jeter and his vision, Sakoda pushed NEA’s decision to invest $15 million in The Players’ Tribune.

Of that $15 million, NEA carved out $5.5 million for athletes to invest in the company, and Kobe Bryant took up the largest share of that portion. NEA invests in companies with a different approach, and those with the potential to go public. NEA has a record of picking winners, having invested in more than 200 companies that have gone public, including Apple in the 1970s, and Uber and Snapchat more recently.

One of the unique elements that made The Tribune attractive was athlete ownership of the site, in addition to athlete involvement.

Anyone can come up with a great idea for a business, Sakoda noted, but “the best companies are separated by execution and people. In this particular case we have a very, very unique group of people who are working on this.”

Now, a little more than a year since Jeter put up his first post, the site has established itself as an authentic voice among the athletes who write for it and the fans who read it, and in Sakoda’s view has positioned itself for much bigger things.

“When we invest in a company, we need to see a incredibly large market opportunity, generally measured in the tens of billions of dollars,” Sakoda said, hinting at a possible IPO.

“Obviously, you can’t guarantee that a company can go public,” he said. “But unquestionably, the vision we all share is to build a large, stand-alone, hopefully publicly traded, hopefully everlasting company.”

GETTING ATHLETES ‘EASIER’ THAN THOUGHT

From its first post, Jeter’s introduction to the site that went up Oct. 1, 2014, the heart of The Players’ Tribune has been direct communication from athletes. Since the launch, nearly 500 athletes from 24 sports have contributed their first-person stories.

Top athletes from multiple sports have joined Jeter, founding publisher of the company, in contributing content. Some have taken editorial titles as well; for example, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a senior editor, as are NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, Clippers forward Blake Griffin and Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

But the platform also publishes current and former athletes who don’t have well-known names and come from out-of-the-spotlight sports, including bobsled, cricket and CrossFit.

The volume of stories and Web traffic has increased steadily since Jeter published his first story. Back then it was three stories a week. That number grew to an average of 14 a week in February 2015, and the site now averages more than 30 a week.

Site traffic has also increased. The Players’ Tribune had 3,158,000 unique visitors in November, according to comScore, making it No. 31 in comScore’s ranking of sports properties. According to internal numbers, the site’s 750 posts have generated more than 38 million page views.

The company employs 35 people, including experienced journalists who work to help athletes tell and illustrate their stories. The executive editor is Jessica Robertson, formerly editor of music magazine The Fader and director of content at MTV Networks. Maureen Cavanagh, who was previously a photography director at Sports Illustrated, is creative director.

Gary Hoenig, who has worked at The New York Times, Newsweek and the Washington Star and was a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine, is editorial director and was the first employee. For Hoenig, the role has been eye opening.

“The surprising thing was finding the degree to which fans assume, journalists assume, that athletes are limited to what they do in terms of the depth of their personality,” Hoenig said.

Steve Nash (top) used the platform to discuss his retirement while Kobe Bryant used poetry to sum up his feelings on his final season.
Photo by: WALTER IOOSS JR.
“You find painters, you find musicians, you find bakers, people who wanted to be journalists. You’ve got a mathematician, which was the biggest surprise of all,” he said, referring to Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, who has published several stories about sports involving mathematical analysis.

Hoenig was also surprised by the number of athletes who contributed and how willing they were to divulge personal details about their lives and careers.
Photo by: JED JACOBSOHN / THE PLAYERS’ TRIBUNE
“What I thought would be really hard was to get athletes to trust us and really get them to tell their stories, and that turned out to be a lot easier than I thought,” he said.

That trust, he says — echoed by others at The Players’ Tribune — has a lot to do with the state of the traditional sports media environment.

“It’s toxic right now,” Hoenig said. “The level of trust is very low.

“It’s been a long, slow slide, and I think it’s reflective of the difficulties we have in the journalism business making money right now.”

Despite that, both Hoenig and President Jaymee Messler repeatedly made the point in long interviews that The Players’ Tribune is not trying to replace or compete with traditional sports media.

“Because of where the landscape is with the media, there is more of a need for The Players’ Tribune,” Messler said. “There is a place for both.”

The site has been put in a competitive situation with traditional outlets, though, simply because athletes have chosen to break news there. Future NBA hall of famer Steve Nash used the site in March to announce his retirement, and Kobe Bryant did the same in November.

When a media storm followed comments by Scott Boras, the agent for New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, about pitch limitations for his client, Harvey chose to write a piece titled “I Will Pitch in the Playoffs.”

“He actually spoke to The Players’ Tribune about his passion for winning, his passion for playing,” Messler said. “That he has to keep his health as a priority but he is 100 percent — he was going to play in the playoffs. And right from there, everybody was able to move on.”

Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan went to The Players’ Tribune to tell his side of the story of his free agency controversy. And Tiger Woods used the site to skewer a Golf Digest writer’s portrayal of him.

The mission, as stated by Jeter on the site, is to transform how athletes and newsmakers share information and bring fans closer to the game.

“It’s not just about breaking news,” Messler said. “It’s not just about setting the record straight. But if we help alleviate some of the stress of being an athlete, we are doing our job.”

FACING CRITICISM

There has been criticism along the way, including that the site is not being totally honest in portraying athletes as writing the stories, when in fact journalists are interviewing athletes and working with them on the pieces, often without credit. The editorial titles that The Players’ Tribune has given to athletes have been the subject of some snarky remarks by members of the sports media.

In response to news that Kevin Durant had been named deputy publisher, NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport tweeted, “These titles are hilarious.”

Messler is aware of the criticism. “The titles are meant to be a little bit tongue in cheek,” she said. “The titles are meant to be fun. We don’t take ourselves that seriously.”

Traditional media was critical as far back as the site’s launch. “There were people who thought we would be more of a vanity site,” Messler said.

Since then, athletes have contributed a number of honest pieces on social and health issues that have won praise, though grudging at times, from the sports media. Tennis player Mardy Fish wrote about his struggle with an anxiety disorder before the U.S. Open. WNBA Indiana Fever guard Layshia Clarendon wrote about what it is like to be black, gay, female, non-cisgender and Christian.

“I am an outsider even on the inside of every community to which I belong,” she wrote. “My very existence challenges every racial, sexual, gender and religious barrier.”

Curt Schilling, who has cancer of the mouth, wrote a “Letter to My Younger Self” about the dangers of chewing tobacco.

Kevin Durant is one of many athletes with editorial titles at The Players’ Tribune.
Photo by: THE PLAYERS’ TRIBUNE
Messler is proud that the site has become an outlet for athletes to discuss things that are concerning them about health or social issues. “We have grown into showing some amazing, credible, thoughtful pieces,” she said.

Richard Deitsch, media writer for Sports Illustrated, said he appreciates that TPT doesn’t pretend to be the Washington Post or The Economist.

“They don’t wave flags and say this is daily journalism at its highest level,” Deitsch said. “They say we are giving you access to these athletes.”

Is The Players’ Tribune journalism or PR? Deitsch says it’s both.

“It absolutely comes off as public relations at times,” Deitsch said. “And other times it strikes me as first-person journalism. I think they are a hybrid.”

Deitsch noted that The Players’ Tribune has hired legitimate, longtime journalists, including people he respects who formerly worked at Sports Illustrated.

At its best, TPT has put out very good feature stories, Deitsch said, adding that he has learned things he did not know about athletes from reading their stories.

“On the whole, they have been really, really interesting just as a content play. So I like what they are doing,” he said.

THE PROCESS

In outlining the editorial process, Hoenig said the stories usually involve a long interview with the athlete by one of the young journalists at TPT. The interview is recorded, transcribed and then organized into a story.

“Nothing gets changes from the athlete’s words other than to make the transitions less awkward or to organize the piece in a more intelligent way,” Hoenig said. “Often the athlete is the most nitpicky about the words he wants to use or what he wants to say. I would say the process is very much in a range of what it is to work with writers.”

Hoenig said TPT editorial staffers spend a lot of time with the athletes before interviewing them.

Swin Cash, a forward with the WNBA’s New York Liberty, has done stories with the site, including a piece where she and fellow WNBA players Tanisha Wright and Essence Carson spoke out on the issues of race, gender and the visibility of female pro athletes. Cash said TPT staffers met with her and the other players before the pieces and made players feel at ease by talking to them about what they wanted to say and convincing them they could say it in their own words.

Swin Cash spoke out on race, gender and the visibility of female pro athletes.
Photo by: ANNIE FLANAGAN / THE PLAYERS’ TRIBUNE
“That is why they get a lot of respect from the athletes they work with — because it is a collaboration and not just from the reporter’s viewpoint,” Cash said.

Cash said she would not have done the piece on race and gender with Wright and Carson with any other media outlet. “A lot of times when a situation is touchy with athletes, it’s hard to speak on a subject, because it can get pushed the wrong way,” Cash said. “And you can get a lot of backlash. So athletes stay away from it.”

When Steve Nash agreed to give the story of his retirement from basketball to the site, it came after spending a lot of time talking to people there.

At first, he said, he didn’t want to write or say anything at all. “I hate to hear my own voice, and I definitely cringe at making any comment,” he said. “I just wanted to disappear.”

But people at The Players’ Tribune convinced him that saying goodbye to his fans and thanking people who helped him along the way in his career was a message that should get out.

Nash sat down with a writer and talked about his career and what he might want to say, but Nash did not give the writer a formal interview after the initial conversation. He ended up writing the piece himself.

“In the end, just the conversation, it sparked something in me,” Nash said. “And I wrote it in one hour, watching my daughter’s soccer practice.”

Nash said he was glad he did it, because there were a lot of people who helped him in his career and he thought he was able to speak to that in a genuine and heartfelt way. “It was really informal, and really a barstool kind of thing,” he said.

Now Nash, who has been involved in producing documentaries, is producing a film series for The Players’ Tribune, featuring a rookie and a veteran NBA player.

BRANDED CONTENT

The Players’ Tribune began operating with little advertising. That was part of the plan, to establish the brand and then bring on advertisers, according to Messler.

“Our focus in our first year was establishing ourselves as the go-to platform for athletes to connect with their fans,” she said. “We wanted to shape our voice and grow our athlete network.”

Tribune Talkers

Most-read stories on The Players’ Tribune site, according to internal figures, as of Dec. 10, 2015

Rank Piece Author Publication date
1 “Dear Basketball” Kobe Bryant  Nov. 29, 2015
2 “Black & Blue” Patrick O’Sullivan Dec. 9, 2015
3 “Kane” Derek Jeter Nov. 3, 2015
4 “Life After Basketball” Steve Nash March 21, 2015
5 “The Five Toughest Players I’ve Ever Guarded” Paul Pierce Jan. 5, 2015

Her vision for TPT involves working with athletes and brands to tell a story.

Powerade last year sponsored a video film series that featured Russian Premier League guard Diana Taurasi, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, New York City FC striker David Villa and Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz called “From Somewhere.” The pieces featured stories of each athlete’s hometown, and how they grew up and started playing sports. The series mirrors an ad spot the brand did with Derrick Rose.

“The Powerade piece shows we are open for business, and I am excited about bringing in a few brand partners to really showcase how we can connect them to athletes through authentic storytelling,” Messler said.

TPT gives brands the chance to extend their campaigns, and it also gives athletes who may not be the top stars in their sport a chance to earn dollars by being part of the campaign on a different platform, Messler said.

Athlete contributors do not get paid by The Players’ Tribune unless the story in which they are featured is connected to a brand. Executives would not discuss the fee structure.

MilkPEP presented a Players’ Tribune webisode series called “Singular Focus” on NBA player Kevin Love’s recovery from a dislocated shoulder.

Miranda Abney, marketing director for Built with Chocolate Milk, said the brand was already working with Love, a chocolate milk drinker, before his injury. “We wanted to support Kevin in his recovery and tell an authentic story of chocolate milk’s valuable role in day-to-day recovery nutrition,” she said.

The Players’ Tribune is “an idea I wish I came up with,” Abney said. “It’s a unique platform.”

THE BUSINESS

The Players’ Tribune plans to continue to tell stories, in different ways and, perhaps, through different platforms. It has already launched Tribune Radio, and a television or Web channel is a possibility in the future.

Although the model of The Players’ Tribune is different and athletes are among the people running it, the plan to monetize it is the same as other media companies: through advertising. Porsche, Dove and Red Bull have joined Powerade and Chocolate Milk in sponsoring content on the site.

NEA’s Sakoda says there is already “fairly significant sponsorship of the site,” but that is not the focus now.

The first phase of growing TPT into a company that can one day go public was building a community of athletes, which TPT has achieved, Sakoda said. The second phase is increasing distribution, which will be a big focus in 2016, and the third phase is monetization.

There is not a fixed timeline for companies to go public, but NEA generally wants to see it in eight to nine years, Sakoda said.

NEA is the largest shareholder but not the majority owner of The Players’ Tribune, Sakoda said. The Players’ Tribune declined to discuss whether all the athletes with titles at the company also had ownership stakes.

The Players’ Tribune had another outside investor, even before NEA. Before the site launched, Thomas Tull, chairman and CEO of Legendary Pictures and a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, made a $3 million investment.

Tull, a friend of Jeter’s, said he invested in the company for a couple of reasons.

“I’m a big believer in Derek Jeter,” he said.

Tull was motivated to invest based on Jeter’s drive and vision, but also based on providing a direct platform for athletes to communicate with fans. He sees The Players’ Tribune as “a coming together of world-class content and in this case athletes, their stories and insights that are compelling coupled with technology and platforms that allow us to work directly with the fan base.”

Tull said the company could go public one day, but right now the focus is on creating a profitable business model.
“I think it’s pivoting right now into that profitable business platform,” Tull said. “And if you can do that, I think that all those business opportunities are open to you.”

Tull said The Players’ Tribune has met every expectation he has set out for the company. But building a successful business takes time, and Tull said he did not know when the company may cross that line into profitability.

Meanwhile, Tull said, having an investor like NEA come on board, not just with money but with smarts and business sophistication, is proof the company is working.

“NEA was a big moment for us,” Tull said.

COMPETITION

Sakoda said that, like Tull, he was motivated as an investor by Jeter’s drive.

“Derek is working just as hard in this career as he was in his last career,” Sakoda said. “He meets with athletes all the time. … He is helping us shape the content strategy.”

The Players’ Tribune isn’t alone now in giving athletes a platform for unfiltered content. Last year, LeBron James launched a site called “Uninterrupted,” which allows athletes to connect with their fans through videos.

“Uninterrupted” announced a $15.8 million investment from Warner Bros. Entertainment and Turner Sports in December.

Also, Wasserman Media Group last year acquired Laundry Service, owner of Cycle, which has a network of more than 1,000 social media influencers, and the NFL Players Association launched its own content company, ACE Media,
“But I don’t think anybody is putting out 30 pieces of really authentic content every single week,” Sakoda said. “I don’t think people are choosing to break national or international news” on competing platforms.

Ron Berkowitz is the spokesman for Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports, and also represents other athletes, such as Alex Rodriguez, for public relations work. He said it’s a matter of time before another competitor takes a shot at creating its own Players’ Tribune, but the test will be whether athletes feel they can trust another site like they trust this one.

“It’s a great platform for athletes to get information out in their own words through a trusted source,” Berkowitz said. “It’s unique in a sense, but athletes have been writing stories in their own words for a while. This just changed the landscape because it’s Jeter, and Jeter gets the respect of athletes, and the trust and comfort level is unmatched by any other form of media.”

Sakoda said that getting the trust of athletes was the key to the business’ foundation.

“Many, many months ago, I was nervous that potentially we wouldn’t get the community of athletes to see us as something different,” Sakoda said. “I am not worried about that today.”

Sakoda stresses The Players’ Tribune is different from the other sports media players in several significant ways. It’s there to serve athletes; it’s run by athletes; and athletes are shareholders.

“The athletes are some of the biggest fans of the Tribune,” Sakoda said. “It’s become more than a media company. It’s become a movement.”

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