How a marketing executive, a movie producer and a journalist aim to shake up sports storytelling
Pro athletes have long been making the jump to Hollywood, but a growing number of active athletes are setting their sights on the storytelling world, and there’s never been a better time to do so.
A new studio from a trio of industry heavyweights has set up shop and it’s off to a fast start, with dozens of content deals in place with some of sports’ biggest stars.
Its name is game1, and it is being led by longtime sports marketing executive Greg Economou, Hollywood producer Basil Iwanyk and former ESPN writer and studio host Michael Smith. Their plan is to leverage their diverse backgrounds to bridge the gap between the sports and entertainment worlds, essentially partnering marquee teams and athletes with Hollywood storytellers and negotiating distribution deals with the biggest platforms available. Long term, game1 aims to produce everything from feature films and full-length documentaries to all-access shows, branded content and even podcasts.
“The range in that is pretty unique,” said Economou, a former executive with Madison Square Garden who most recently worked as chief commercial officer and head of sports at Ticketmaster. “Most production companies or studios will focus on a specific area. … Our project or development slate right now has such incredible diversity to it. To us, storytelling is storytelling.”
The studio has already landed more than 40 content partnerships with leagues, teams and athletes, including former NBA MVP James Harden of the Houston Rockets, retired race car driver Danica Patrick and Houston Texans Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson. There are around 115 projects in various stages of development, and Economou estimates about 30 of them are actively proceeding. The athletes’ roles in those projects vary greatly, from executive producing feature films to hosting series to starring as talent (see sidebar).
The strategy grew out of a conversation between Economou and Iwanyk, two sports lovers who discovered they’d identified the same opportunity from different angles. They initially launched last year as (co)laboratory along with The Players’ Tribune co-founder Jaymee Messler as a partner and Smith as EVP and chief content officer. Messler later departed, which both sides say was an amicable split over differing visions for the company. In December, the company rebranded as game1 with Smith elevated to partner. The three partners own 100% of the company, though Economou notes they’ve received outside seed funding and are considering future rounds of investment as they continue to expand.
There’s no shortage of contenders hoping to cash in on the new wave of distributor money flooding into sports, but the game1 partners believe they’ve found an edge. “If you want to tell a great story, you need to employ the great storytellers of the world,” said Iwanyk, whose Thunder Road Pictures was behind the likes of “We Are Marshall,” “A Star is Born,” “The Town” and the John Wick franchise.
Unlike agencies, which may just pair their athlete clients with screenwriters or producers, game1 has a creative staff in place to shepherd projects from start to finish. “We are the quality control. We’re the ones who, in terms of creative, the budget, what our original goals were, are making sure we’re sticking to them,” said Iwanyk. “That’s something that no other company does. Anybody could make introductions, but we are part of the creative unit.”
Adds Iwanyk, “We give [athletes] a roadmap on how to get something made or not. We’re counselors on their ideas, and we’re their creative partner on bringing that story to life.” The studio collects producer fees on its projects, plus a potential back-end cut depending on the terms of each individual deal.
Some notable athletes have cut out the middleman altogether, with the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, among others, launching full-fledged content platforms. But for most of the sports world, such a huge play just isn’t an option. “Some athletes, we have partnerships on projects. The same goes for teams,” said Smith. “Others, we have a studio-of-record relationship with them where we are essentially their de facto production entity. Not everyone is going to start an Uninterrupted or Spring Hill or Unanimous Media.” Economou called the model a “starter kit for athletes.”
The partners say they already have four distribution deals in place with more nearing the finish line, and they’re finding no shortage of potential buyers to play against each other. “Up until a couple years ago, there were only really four buyers of sports content: HBO, Showtime, ESPN and Fox,” said Iwanyk. “Now there are 40 or 50 really active buyers for sports content.”
Economou adds that game1 is equally interested in partnering with brands, whose involvement varies from financing or sponsoring projects to advertising in companion content. Though Economou won’t divulge which brands are so far involved, he says game1 has secured a financier for a ten-episode series, the presenting sponsor of a documentary, the sponsor for a behind-the-scenes digital series about an actor transforming themselves to play an athlete and a brand that will build a social justice campaign around an upcoming feature film. “Brands are spending more and more money every single day on content in different ways,” said Economou. “The response has been fairly universal: ‘Bring us more, we want to be in this space.’” An added bonus: third-party financed projects typically allow game1 to own the intellectual property.
The partners plan to be in this space for a long time as well.
“The good news is it’s a perfect intersection to be at right now,” said Economou. “There are people realizing that there are stories that need to be told. People realize that what consumers want is authenticity, connectivity and great storytelling.”