Sports and entertainment: Controlling the narrative
Julian Edelman understands how to play the percentages.
In a smart and stylish documentary called “100%: Julian Edelman,” which Showtime debuted in late June, the obvious angle explains how the New England Patriots’ undersized wide receiver returned from a serious knee injury and a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug rules to become the super-sized MVP of Super Bowl LIII.
But embedded in the 73-minute piece, Edelman and his team cleverly reveal a high-percentage template for how modern-day athletes who want to own their story could quite easily launch their own do-it-yourself media company, starting with social media exposure, building an audience and generating celebrity. Even while playing.
“I thought this would be the biggest piece of crap ever,” Edelman explained about the documentary process that started with a pitch by producer/writer Assaf Swissa and director Kyler Schelling. “Things kind of snowballed, circumstances changed, we kept shooting and all of a sudden, we lucked into something we feel pretty proud about.”
Before they knew it, they had formed Coast Productions.
“Now I love doing this,” said Edelman, speaking from Showtime’s New York offices. “It’s fun and creative and something I’ve become passionate about, and I love the team that I have around me. There’s definitely a future here.”
In today’s athlete-meets-entertainment world, the current stratosphere of power players led by LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry may generate above-the-rim buzz in Hollywood for the ways they have taken creative control of their storytelling abilities and found willing partners for compelling TV, movie and streaming projects.
A nod also must go to Kobe Bryant’s Granity Studios for winning a 2018 Academy Award for the animated short “Dear Basketball,” and to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose Religion of Sports production of the “Tom vs. Time” series on Facebook Watch recently won a Sports Emmy.
Now, there seems to be an announcement every other day about an athlete partnership deal to make a new project — it’s David Beckham starting his own company and partnering with James and Maverick Carter, or Dwyane Wade using his company to co-produce a story on his life for distribution on one of ESPN’s many platforms.
Edelman’s documentary reveals how he learned about the power of social media and how he could tap into it. After a “Sunday Night Football” game in 2013, he posted on Facebook with a reference to that night’s “Breaking Bad” finale and got 2 million impressions and insight into how he could build an audience for his brand. That convergence of technological advancement and a burgeoning demand from fans and companies for unique content is something athletes can’t help but notice.
“Some of us are old enough to remember when the post-career go-to for many professional athletes was the car dealership — fast forward to today and it’s now production companies,” said Colleen Dominguez, a former ESPN and Fox Sports reporter who has her own Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based CMD Productions.
She was a producer with director Johnny Sweet to generate the recent Bleacher Report-funded and Showtime-aired documentary “Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story.” And yes, Artest, the former NBA player known as Metta World Peace, has his own production company, too.
“I think a lot of athletes became interested in expanding into multimedia projects once they saw the success that some — including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — have had with their production companies,” Dominguez said. “It gives them a platform to show people the issues that are important to them.
“And let’s not forget professional sports careers usually end when athletes are still young. So it’s smart to set themselves up for other opportunities once they move off the court or off the field.”
Dan Durbin, director of USC’s Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, says that if you begin with the premise that sports as it exists today is media content because a vast majority consume it that way, “athletes recognize their value is so high that if they control their own media presence they can make significant cash that warps anything they can make as endorsers. It’s the smart thing to do, to control your own media content distribution.
“This new body of athletes realize if someone like LeBron hasn’t been the king of basketball already, he’s become the king of media for basketball. He’s understood and controlled how his presence exists in the media — and by far he was the best actor in the movie ‘Trainwreck.’”
Athletes have different entry points to joining the media world. After he retired from the Yankees in 2014, Derek Jeter founded The Players’ Tribune, which succeeded initially as a written storytelling platform and has stayed relevant while transitioning to increased video conent. Other athletes join existing properties, as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees did with Hollywood production company Argent Pictures.
For those who narrow their scope and see themselves as the product as well as the delivery system, a broader strand of brand recognition and fan following is inevitable.
“For a long time, you always had people reaching out: Can I tell this story with you? Can I put your name on it?” said Sarah Flynn, general manager of Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures. “After a certain point, athletes got really smart and realized, ‘I can do this myself. I don’t need someone else to do it for me.’ It’s an exciting time across the board for everyone.”
LET’S TAKE A MEETING
Adam Neuhaus, director of development for ESPN Films and Original Content, pointed out three intriguing reasons why this could be the perfect storm for a tidal wave of athlete-driven content.
“We’re in an era of player empowerment and, by the way, rightfully so,” Neuhaus said. “It’s been very nice to have the voices of athletes a bit more unfiltered, and they’re not trying to do the same work a journalist is trying to do. The power of their voice in the conversation is incredibly additive.
“The timing is in the amount of platforms and ventures and the ease in which people can record and do more things themselves. Certainly people’s Instagrams are essentially a version of a TV network, so they’re used to having that kind of control.”
The third reason is the amount of time athletes spend on the road, which gives them time to consume others’ content, Neuhaus said. “There may be many ways to become an expert in media, and one of them is you can’t skip out on the ability to watch a lot of stuff,” he said. “You have to develop your pace and see what’s out there. Athletes are actually well suited for that.”
Developing relationships and trust with existing companies that may have covered the athlete during their career often helps foster future projects. One can’t simply rely on their athletic star value.
“I wouldn’t put someone’s name on a project as an executive producer unless they put every single fiber of their being into the project,” said Charlie Dixon, the executive vice president of content for Fox Sports and head of its studio programming and documentary series, “Magnify,” which focuses on athletes with passion projects.
Durant proved that to Dixon with his recent documentary “Q Ball,” a Michael Tolajian-directed piece about the San Quentin prison basketball team that rewards inmates with a game against the Golden State Warriors’ front-office staff at the end of the season. It premiered at SFFilm, a San Francisco-based festival, had a short theater run in L.A. and New York, and then went to the Fox Sports channel distribution and on-demand.
“Kevin was so passionate about this, and as we were premiering it [in June], you recall he was struggling with injuries [during the NBA Finals],” Dixon said. “But he was participating, promoting it through social media, talking behind the scenes to influencers in Hollywood and elsewhere, completely involved.”
Durant experienced something of a coming-out party as athlete-media entrepreneur at the NBA Tech Summit at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on the Friday before the 2018 All-Star Game at the Staples Center. He announced his company was in production with Brian Grazer on a drama called “Swagger,” based on Durant’s life. Eventually, Durant was to launch “The Boardroom,” a show for ESPN+, and a platform linked to his Instagram account that he used to announce the news of his free-agent move this summer from Golden State to Brooklyn.
“Opportunities like the All-Star Game are great places to reconnect and network with people we now know, foster more relationships, share information, see what everyone else is doing,” said Thirty Five Ventures’ Flynn. “The best networking opportunity is Kevin being Kevin. Those are special moments.”
As business insiders speculate how James’ free-agent move to the Lakers allowed him to not just extend his stardom on the court but also be closer to his Hollywood studio work, the same was implied about Durant now joining the Nets, which puts him much closer to his production company’s New York offices.
Explained Flynn: “What’s funny about that is we talked to LeBron about that narrative on one of our ‘Boardroom’ shows, because people automatically make that connection — even if the connections were already there. It’s not like he moved to Hollywood for more opportunities because he had those connections already and he had a home there.
“I’m sure it makes things easier to be around his [James’] production team, and the same is true for our team [with partner and agent Rich Kleiman]. It wasn’t a real consideration for [Durant] signing with the Nets, but it was more a great bonus that we get. There are advantages and disadvantages about certain cities and markets, but people might be surprised to know how much gets done behind the scenes even when you don’t have those advantages.”
Halfway through the debut episode of the ABC miniature golf game show, “Holey Moley,” Steph Curry shows up in a garish robe, sits in an oversized chair with a roaring fireplace in view, and begins:
“Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of being the resident golf pro at an extreme mini-golf obstacle course competition on ABC,” Curry looks into the camera and says. “People told me, ‘That’s never gonna happen, Stephen.’ And, ‘That’s so specific, Stephen, where do you even do that?’”
He tugs at his ascot around his neck.
“Well look at me now,” he smirks.
As the show’s executive producer, Curry joined in on the ABC “Sunday Fun & Games” summer lineup, showed off his golf skills and made a seamless transition for viewers who just saw him in the NBA Finals on the same network.
Also flawless was how Curry promoted through social media a documentary he helped produce with his Unanimous Media company and Sony Pictures called “Emanuel,” which could not be more opposite a project than his network game show. “Emanuel” tells the story of how a man walked into a church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people on June 17, 2015.
“Steph represents a number of athletes who, to one degree or another, have a variety of interests to express, and these different platforms allow that to happen,” USC’s Durbin said. “There is a difference between taking your money from a sport and going privately to do whatever it is you want, and realizing you have a lot bigger audience if you take your money and do it in a lot bigger media place.
“That’s what so many of them are doing. You can expect to see more and more as time goes on.”
As part of the crossover, Curry explains in an interview with Variety that media projects are part of resting his psyche as much as his body: “Basketball you are consumed by for nine full months every single day. In the playoffs, every game feels like two regular-season games in one. You need to just be able to turn it off.”
That’s also part of the reason why, as Curry tells The Hollywood Reporter, he didn’t have time to join James in the remake of “Space Jam” for Warner Bros. He was too busy with his own stuff.
Michael Strahan is the perfect example of how a versatile and well-connected former athlete can expand his opportunities in the media world. The former New York Giants defensive end started with the oft-traveled path of becoming a studio analyst, networking with media insider Jay Glazer in a refresh of Fox’s NFL pregame show.
At the same time, Strahan won two Daytime Emmys as morning show co-host with Kelly Ripa, before moving over to host “Good Morning America” and a prime-time version of the “$100,000 Pyramid” game show, both on ABC.
With ESPN falling under the Disney/ABC umbrella, Strahan expanded his executive producer role in helping with an ESPN “30 for 30” project about Deion Sanders.
Both Strahan and Sanders were part of Edelman’s documentary. Connecting dots further, Edelman came on as a celebrity guest on “$100,000 Pyramid,” with former teammate Rob Gronkowski, a potential media machine in his own right.
“You may compete on the court or field, but you’re not competing in terms of celebrity,” Durbin said. “Everyone helps everyone else’s celebrity status. It’s not a zero-sum game but actually a complementary game, building each other’s brand. That goes all the way back to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson — making your opponents as valuable as your teammates outside the court. It’s like anyone who sees wealth, you become yourself bigger only if you have the means to express it in greater volume.”
SIZING IT UP
So far, this athlete/entertainment equation is NBA-loaded. League Commissioner Adam Silver has suggested that one reason could be that a 94-by-50 basketball court has the same 16:9 visual ratio as a movie screen or flat-screen TV.
A football or soccer field can’t be that far off, either. Maybe there’s something to it.
On the red carpet at the ESPY Awards, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, singer Ciara, discussed their media company, Why Not You Productions. The name comes from a question Wilson said his father always asked him, “and we really want to be able to tell inspirational stories and we’re excited about what we have coming up.”
Edelman says he is committed to continuing his NFL career as Brady’s favorite passing target, having signed a two-year, $18 million contract extension that keeps him with the Patriots through 2021, although he is currently sidelined with a thumb injury. The work at Coast Productions fills his offseason, and his partners carry the ball for him while he’s in practices and training.
But they also learned how much Edelman is committed to this field of work.
“I may have gone to film school, and Assaf has his expertise in marketing, so we can be the creative managers of this thing, but with Julian’s input and the notes he comes back with and the ideas he comes with, it’s actually pretty profound,” Schelling said. “You might think he’s just the football player, but it’s really not the case. He really made this [documentary project] a lot better than it could have been if it was just me and Assaf.”
Swissa adds that Edelman pointed out that the doc was lacking a suitable musical track that fit a scene where he was pondering his next step after a PED suspension and issues with his father.
“The fact he applied himself to source the track and then as an executive producer was able to get us that track … he’s not just an athlete who sat there and let others do the thing,” Swissa said.
Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza laughed when explaining how his company “got a great deal when you look at cost per hour because Julian was really killing himself here” to finish the documentary, which included on-screen narration from actors Mark Wahlberg and Michael Rapaport, sports TV personality Erin Andrews, rapper Snoop Dogg and Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy.
“There is a ton of content out there, so finding unique voices that tell stories is really at a premium,” Espinoza said. “When we come along with a group like this using a tone you haven’t seen before in a sports doc, it’s something we grab onto and want to hold onto for dear life.”
Hollywood industry publications hint that Coast Productions will be pitching projects that include a romantic comedy set in the world of pro football and a pseudo-autobiographical half-hour dramedy series, with the help of L.A.’s ICM Partners.
Neither Edelman, Swissa nor Schelling would be more specific about plans, but they’ve come to realize their trajectory isn’t so much hinging upon Edelman’s star power.
“You may open some doors [with a recognizable name from the sports world] but if you don’t put out good content … that leads to everything and that’s what we take pride in,” Edelman said. “We’re not just going to half-ass something because we’re getting a green light, you know what I mean?”
He added a pause for dramatic effect. Then joked, “Maybe I should get a car dealership.”
Tom Hoffarth is a writer in Southern California.