Peter Houston

Peter Houston: Could you describe the Players’ Tribune for anyone who hasn’t heard of it?

Sean Conboy: I think people asked me that question all the time, and I never quite know how to answer it. Because I think there have been so many different areas of this place and what we’ve done. But to make a long story short, our company was actually founded by a group of athletes, some of the best, and most respected names in the sports world.

So our founder was actually Derek Jeter, who actually just went into the Baseball Hall of Fame two days ago here in the States, and for people who maybe aren’t as familiar with American sports or baseball, Derek was a legend, class on and off the field, one of the best players to ever do it. But it was quite ironic, because I think maybe a comparison when people found out that he was going to start this media company, as he was retiring, it was a little bit shocking for people because he was notoriously guarded with his personal life and really guarded with the media.

I tell people all the time, when I’m speaking to people in the UK or Europe, it would be like somebody like James Milner or something starting a podcast network o something after he retired. It was something that people were pretty intrigued by and surprised by and had a lot of questions.

But I think the main driving force of the mission was pretty simple, which was that Derek thought from just his experience as a player for 20 years that it was really, really hard for athletes to have a safe space where they felt like they could truly be themselves and tell their stories.

I think that the media does a brilliant job. I mean, there are some incredible journalists that really do gain the trust of players and have broken incredible backstories of players really, really well. But overall, as you know, and I think we’ve seen in the last couple years, the media landscape is very diverse, very large, there’s not one sort of style or perspective in media, right?

And so I think the main thing for Derek was that it was really open-ended, it was a blank page. He thought if we can get a company that was basically started by athletes, and give them the platform and give them the space, a trusted space, to work with creative people who could help them tell their stories, whether that was through essays, which we’re known quite widely for, but also in videos and documentaries and podcasts. That was really the impetus of the company.

It was seven years ago now that we started this thing. To make a long story short, I think the idea was to give athletes a platform to tell their own stories in their own way snd in their own words. I think it was met with a lot of scepticism, and I’ll be honest, I was one of those people.

When I found out about the project, I was one of the first people brought on to the editorial team. I had questions myself: how is this going to work? What are the athletes going to want to talk about? Is there really going to be an audience for this? Is this just going to be PR? Is this going to be marketing?

We as a staff, and I think Derek deserves a lot of credit for this and the athletes who were some of the first people involved, I think they deserve a lot of credit that the proof is really in the pudding with the kind of stories that we put out. I think we’ve surprised a lot of people with the depth of storytelling and the topics that we’ve covered.

So how would you describe that range of topics?

One of the first things that became apparent so when we first started speaking to the athletes about what they wanted the content to be, so what do you want to talk about? What is your story? What’s important to you that you’re never asked about or you haven’t been comfortable with?

One of the first things that became clear was mental health. And this is a thing now that I think you’re seeing it talked about quite a lot. If you look at Naomi Osaka, if you look at Simone Biles, but if you go back, it wasn’t just us, but we were one of the first athlete-led media companies to really dive into that.

We broke a story all the way back in 2015, a couple of months after we launched the Players’ Tribune, with a basketball player named Larry Sanders. And Larry was one of the first players to come out. He had stepped away in the game in the middle of his career. There were a lot of questions about why, there were a lot of rumours about what was going on, and it was actually that he was having severe mental health issues, panic attacks, depression, really debilitating.

He made a video with us explaining that and one of the first things that stick in my mind is in the first couple seconds of that video, what he says is something along the lines of ‘hello, I’m Larry Sanders, I’m a basketball player, but also an artist, a father, a son’, on and on, right. And the message was, I play basketball for a living, and that’s my passion. But I’m also these other things, and there’s quite a complicated backstory to a lot of people and things that are going on that people don’t know about.

That was one of the first ones and at the time, to be honest, this was 2015, the media landscape, the sports landscape, the social media landscape was quite different. So people were really taken aback by this, that he was that candid. In the past, you’d have athletes maybe step away, and their agents or their PR people would tell them, hey, just take a break, don’t say anything, don’t do anything. You’ll come back in a year or we’ll explain it away with something, we’ll say you were injured. He had the courage to come out and say what was really going on.

I think that was one of the most important first stories that we ever did, because I think it set the tone for what the ceiling for athlete, first-person storytelling could be.

Do you approach the athletes? Or did they approach you, or what’s that process?

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s changed throughout the years. Obviously seven years ago, when we were quite a new thing, we were doing a lot of the outreach to athletes that we just thought had potentially really interesting stories, or that were just really intriguing to us. And basically approaching them and saying, hey, would you be interested in talking to us?

I think the important thing with us as well is that obviously everything is everything is a trust game. It’s all in the athletes’ hands. It’s a collaboration. We’re not coming to them as a magazine or something that has to have a cover story out in the next two months. There’s challenges with that, but that’s also kind of the strength, I think, of what we do.

And so when we reach out to an athlete, it’s just a conversation, and we try to go in, especially our editorial team, a lot of us come from the traditional media world, or have worked in that world. There’s immense value again, I can’t stress that enough, like we are not trying to compete with that world at all, but we’re just a completely separate lane.

So when we reach out to someone, like when we reached out to Raheem Sterling, for example, before the World Cup in 2018, there was a lot going on in the media. He was getting, I think, a lot of unfair treatment in the tabloid press, or certain sections of the press in the UK. Again, this is a little bit of our strength as a brand, because of our relationships in the athlete community, you hear things like, ‘hey, you know, Raheem is actually a really good guy, like he was one of my favorite people’.

Then your wheels start turning, and you start thinking, okay, you know what, let’s reach out and see if maybe he wants to have a conversation, because the person that we’re hearing that he is, is not matching up with this narrative. When we reached out, we always knew, of course, it would be great or a possibility if he would speak about those issues and his treatment, but we want to keep it extremely open-ended, because he may just want to talk about football or he may just want to talk about where he grew up, or something like that.

And so we sat down with him before the World Cup, and the conversation went in many directions. But I think the thing that really made an impact, especially in the UK, is that his life and what he lived through with his father dying, with the way his mother took care of him and his sister, with the way that his own sister actually took care of him and would ride along in the bus with him for hours to take him to training. He just had this incredible backstory and was such a funny, charismatic person.

Honestly, a story like that, it can’t really be dreamed up in a creative meeting or in an editorial meeting, because part of the point of the Players’ Tribune, or I think maybe the beauty of it, is that we never quite know what we’re getting into with these stories.

We’re looking for the things that you can’t Google or find out about, if you look at the mainstream press, or we’re trying to get those stories that maybe these athletes have only ever told their best friends or their confidants, right. Of course, over the years, just to fully answer your question, then the great thing is once we establish that trust in the athlete community, then we have had our athletes actually reaching out to us with the types of stories that again, we could never even think of, or know about some of the things that they may want to speak about.

A lot of times when you’re dealing with those types of stories, when the athlete reaches out, they just want a conversation at first to even put their thoughts on tape or on the page, and to see how it feels and to think about it. I think that’s been an eye-opening thing for me over the years. I think what I’m really proud of, and why I think this platform should exist, is that when you’re talking about something like that, it can be hard to nail that on the first take.

We’ve all had that moment when you’re staring at the blank page, in a sense, or you’re staring at the blank recording of the podcast, you’re staring into the camera. It’s a complex topic, it can be very daunting, right. And so I think where we’ve been successful is we lend athletes that second, third, fourth take. We tried to help them talk through some of these things, put it on the page, or on tape in a really compelling way and bring out certain things that maybe they’re even having a hard time articulating or bringing to the surface.

So that content creation process is an interview, and then an edit, and then the athlete gets approval or gets to add stuff, or you maybe do another interview and add some more. Is it kind of an iterative process?

This is probably the number one thing I get asked when I’m at a bar or something or speaking to a friend who is interested in what we do. They’re like, well, okay, how does it work? Because obviously these athletes are busy. They’re not just sitting down in a Word document and writing this, right?

And it’s like, yes, of course, these are some of the busiest people in the world, actually, which is another maybe misconception or thing that I didn’t even know before starting this job is that we hear these comments on social media, like, oh yeah, these men and women sit around, and they get paid millions of dollars, and they just play a sport.

We all know anyone with experience in this industry, they’re some of the busiest, most structured people in the world, those top-level athletes. Their time is something that’s actually so valuable for us and so that’s a huge part of this. And so when we’re thinking about doing a piece of content, number one, we say, what’s the best format for this. Is it a video? Is this even something longer, like a documentary? Is it a podcast? Is it something where we just maybe want to talk to this person, like we’re talking now and just sit around talking like friends, maybe that could be very revealing.

But if you think about what we’ve been known for throughout the years is the first-person essays. That, to me, is something that there’s no real one way that we do it. I think there’s a way that we do it most of the time, but even that there’s a lot of nuance in, but it always starts with in-depth conversations.

So sometimes athletes send us something that they’ve been working on and that can be anything from a Word document or Google document, or even like a Notes app with some stuff that they’ve tried to formulate about what they may want to say or write. That can even sometimes be voice notes that they send us or whatever. We may have something that we’re working with at the start.

But most of the time, we even recommend even before that, hey, let’s just talk, almost like a writer would be commissioned for a magazine piece, right? We all know that game. Ideally, you actually sit down and you talk with your editor for a while about the scope and what you’re thinking and what might be interesting, and you talk it out.

We try to take that same approach with athletes where that first initial conversation, which can be anywhere from an hour to marathon sessions where we end up speaking to an athlete for four hours or sometimes even over multiple days, depending on what happens.

That’s the basis and then, from there, our editorial team does what we do really well, which is how do you par that down into something that’s manageable for them to take to the athletes, then they can look at and then edit, or they may even change it drastically. They may want to change the direction they may say, wow, this is actually almost perfect, but we need to tweak this and the other thing. There’s no real one way but that’s kind of the main basis for it.

What do you think, at the moment, the split between those essays and text and then video and audio content? Are you moving more towards multimedia?

Yeah, I think a big eye-opener for us – well, there were two things. But I think for the 2018 World Cup, the work we did in the football space, we took a little bit of a different approach for that, because we knew that that’s such a key moment. All eyes of the world are on this thing. There are players from all these different countries.

And so what we did for that was that we tried to put a camera in the room every time we did one of these interviews about the stories and it was a little bit easier because we had basically a theme for that package where we were telling the origin stories of all these players who were involved in the World Cup. We literally had – I can’t even remember the final total – but we nearly hit every country that participated.

So all kinds of different languages and things that we were dealing with, but we wanted a camera in the room to try to capture that so that we could have that multimedia element. What was really cool with that is that – I don’t know if you remember – but when Kolarov scored an amazing free kick during that tournament, we’d actually worked with Kolarov and in the conversation, he tells this origin story about how he got so good at free kicks with his left foot.

And it actually ties in, of course, to his history and the war and how he would kick it against this fence all the time and he broke the fence. Literally, it was perfect because then we have that multimedia clip when he scored the free kick on social media, we basically put out ‘here’s the origin story of this guy’s incredible left foot and how it’s actually connected to his identity in his home country and his whole life’.

Throughout the years, we’ve done a lot of amazing video work where I would say more in the traditional video storytelling space. If you want an example of that, I always think about Lamar Odom who I think even in the UK you may be familiar with, because he had a relationship with one of the Kardashians. He was like a reality TV star. But before that he was a major NBA star with Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, but had dealt with incredible things in his life: drug addiction, loss. He did a video with us.

If you search Players’ Tribune Lamar Odom on YouTube, I’ll just leave it to people to watch that because it was incredibly raw and intimate. I think the unique thing that I think is one of the seminal moments in our history, actually, when you talk about what is the Players’ Tribune and the feel that we’re trying to give you, that’s definitely worth checking out.

Obviously podcasts as well over the years, we have a podcast called Knuckleheads, which is very popular. It’s for the NBA fans out there, which is amazing because it’s truly two cultural legends in the NBA. I mean, two guys, Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson for anyone who’s under 30 years old and maybe isn’t as familiar with them. But in the early 2000s, they were the coolest thing in the NBA, playing for the Clippers.

Those guys just sit around and they just shoot the shit with their fellow NBA players, legends, current players, and the vibe of that really is not overproduced. It’s just talking about what they would talk about if they were all sitting around their house talking. So it’s a split at this point, really. It’s probably pretty equal split between video, podcast, and the essays. And that’s all been an outgrowth, I think, of the trust that we’ve built up in the athlete community.

How important is social to you, like social media distribution?

I mean, it’s so important at this point, right? Twitter is such an important thing for us to drive awareness and marketing for our content. Obviously, Facebook is challenging for publishers. Overall, it’s a little bit harder to understand what’s going to be successful on Facebook, I think, but Twitter and Instagram, especially we’ve seen Instagram Stories when athletes promote their content.

Tim Sparv, the captain of the Finland national team just did a piece, where the title was ‘We need to talk about Qatar’. That piece was actually really supported by the athlete community, which was great to see. Again, he doesn’t have the biggest following, but we saw a tremendous amount of traffic coming from Instagram, based on him sharing that story and other footballers sharing it. It speaks to our purpose, right? We do a lot of great anecdotes and banter and behind the scenes stories and stuff in our storytelling, which I think people love, but I think the deeper level is one of the first major footballers speaking out on the human rights issues around this upcoming World Cup.

In my opinion, he walked the walk. This is not just him saying things that he thinks people want to hear. He’s reached out to the migrant workers who have built those stadiums under some really terrible conditions and he’s walking the walk. It’s really trying to drive awareness for something that I think a lot of people in the football world would love to just be swept under the rug and to go away.

So with a story like that, to answer your question on social distribution, if we were just a website and Tim Sparv publishes an essay for us, it’s tough to get that off the ground, right? You can try to do it with newsletter-type marketing or something. But so much of the driver for that it’s going to be coming from the athletes’ social media channels, and then from the pick-up, and a big shout out again to Sid Lowe and some of the people in the journalism community and in Europe who helped to amplify that piece.

Against that background, that kind of social awareness if you like, what’s your commercial model? How does your commercial model work?

With Derek Jeter being one of the ones to found this company, and then also getting athletes like Kobe Bryant, Danica Patrick, Blake Griffin, these kind of people involved from the start, we got a lot of patience from our initial investors to 1) build the trust and credibility of this place in the first two years, before trying to go into that commercial space too soon.

We wanted to solidify our brand and what we stood for, so everything we talked about mental health, social justice, deep storytelling, I think authenticity, which is a word that now we hear everyone saying. Now, that was something that seven years ago, that was the main thing that we were writing on the top of every page, right?

This has to be authentic and real because we all knew if it’s fake, everyone’s going to tell right away, to be honest. No one really wanted to like this little thing that we started. You have a bunch of very famous, very well-off athletes putting their hands in to start this company. I think there was a lot of scepticism about the authenticity and the nature of it. And so we had to prove that it was going to be worthwhile, worth your time, and real.

I think once we did that, after those first two years, we established that credibility, then we started to go to brands, and especially brands that we thought could make sense and be decent partners for us, and to say, hey, if you like what we’re doing, and your interest intrigued in these kinds of spaces…mental health at the time, that wasn’t really something that a lot of brands were spending money on.

And now in 2021, some of our biggest campaigns, American Family Insurance. They’re hitting on these themes of identity, social justice, mental health, and they’re putting their dollars behind that and their brand behind it and sponsoring storytelling in that space. And look, let’s be honest – it’s a challenging space. I think every publisher will tell you that. Everyone says at the start, you all sit around in a room and you say that you want to just make something amazing and impactful.

But of course, there’s hurdles there. There’s just budgetary obstacles to doing that. There’s brand obstacles. But I would say I think the strength of it is that a lot of our revenue comes from brand partnerships that are really close to the kind of storytelling that we would want to do anyway. The brands are really just helping to fund some of these stories that we would want to do anyway.

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