When Derek Jeter retired from baseball in fall 2014, he set out to help other athletes do something that he never could: appear human to fans. “I’m not a robot,” he wrote in the opening dispatch of the Players' Tribune, the website he co-founded to give athletes a platform that didn't rely on beat writers, columnists, or TV cameras. “We just need to be sure our thoughts will come across the way we intend,” the New York Yankees star wrote of his new venture. The Players' Tribune, like many media startups, arrived with plenty of rhetoric about disruption.
At a panel this month on the future of sports journalism at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the program promised an explanation of just how athletes had "completely disrupted the process by taking the story-telling into their own hands." Jaymee Messler, a former sports marketing executive and co-founder of the Players' Tribune, shared the stage with four sportswriters who had all spent time holding recorders in front of ballplayers. Yes, the journalists agreed, the Tribune and outlets like it had made it harder to get access to players. But this would hardly be the end of sportswriting as we know it. "This is just sort of the logical evolution of controlling a printing press not being a very important power any more," said Carl Bialik, a writer at FiveThirtyEight who spoke alongside Messler. For him and the others on stage, the Tribune had already become just another place to read about sports online.
This represents progress for the Tribune, which was greeted as something both more sinister and more comical when it launched. Jeter and Messler, who spent 15 years at his agency, Excel Sports Management, were experts in public relations. There was little reason to think their joint venture would produce anything else. "I was a little bit skeptical," said Brian Moritz, a professor of digital media at SUNY-Oswego. "It sounded a lot like more player PR." Deadspin, the Gawker Media-owned sports website, compared Tribune stories to "obnoxious Facebook status updates or bad headlines in gossip magazines." Katie Nolan, host of the talk show Garbage Time on Fox Sports 1, told viewers that Jeter's new site was not about serving fans. "It's for the players," Nolan said, "who want to appear like an open book without the risk of getting themselves in trouble for being an open book."
The Tribune didn't help itself by handing out newsroom titles to contributors. Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Danica Patrick became senior editors. Matt Harvey, a pitcher for the Mets, served as New York City bureau chief. The titles became easy sport for working journalists. They were never meant to be taken seriously, said Gary Hoenig, editorial director at the Tribune, but the website never did anything to indicate ironic intention. "We didn't have fun with it," said Hoenig. "Others have therefore filled in the gap."
Early stories did little to change perceptions. Many contributors, including Griffin, Love, and Patrick, happened to have agents at Excel Sports Management. Six weeks after launch, Tiger Woods used the Tribune to lash out at a writer over a parody interview published in Golf Digest. It read as if Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg (another former colleague of Messler's at Excel), had called in a favor to use the new site for score settling. "We felt that Tiger needed a place to correct the record," Hoenig said of the Woods story. "Would we do it differently today? Probably. But we've learned a lot in a year."
Last December, in a sign of a quiet shift in emphasis and tone, the Tribune published a story by Patrick O'Sullivan, a retired NHL player, about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. It was vivid and direct and argued persuasively against the notion that parental abuse makes for elite athletes. The story was an eye-opener for many readers. "That was, for me, the turning point in reassessing what the Players' Tribune can be," said Moritz. Even Deadspin touted it without snark.
The post carried a lesson for the Tribune as well. It came just a few days after Kobe Bryant had set traffic records at the site by announcing his upcoming retirement from the NBA via a hokey poem. For several weeks, O'Sullivan's story trailed only Bryant's free verse for most-read item in the site's history. (As of last week, the all-time top five are Bryant's retirement, John Scott on his NHL All-Star fracas, Russell Wilson's letter to Peyton Manning, O'Sullivan's story, and Steve Nash on life after the NBA.)
The Tribune has now published works bearing the bylines of more than 600 athletes; less than 15 percent of them, the company said, came through an affiliation with Excel. At its offices in a former freight terminal on the Manhattan's West Side—now home to fashion houses, ad agencies, and media companies—large, heroic photos of Griffin, Harvey, David Ortiz, and other past contributors line the walls.
The writing process often begins with a visit to the New York conference room. Athletes and their handlers sit with the editorial staff and home in on an angle. Later, one of the staffers is assigned to work with the athlete to produce the story. "Then there's literally a taped conversation," said Hoenig, "and the manuscript comes out of that taped conversation. And it's rearranged and organized and cleaned up, but it's not changed. We don't edit or add words." The promise to contributors is that nothing gets published without prior approval.
Sometimes the Tribune goes after sources, more or less the way any well-connected media outlet would. Increasingly, though, it's athletes who seek out the Tribune. The site has gained particular traction with hockey players. O'Sullivan, said Hoenig, came after hearing from Daniel Carcillo, who heard from Scott Gomez. "When they are talking to our editorial team, our photographers, our videographers, our writers, their guard is down," Messler told the audience at the MIT conference.
The site recently added a masthead for its staff of 41, including seven editors under Hoenig. These are the people who work directly with the athletes, though their names are not attached to the stories. The omission is a sore spot for some in the industry, who would like to see "as-told-to" credits. "It’s the same kind of dishonesty as the bylines from elected officials in the New York Times op-ed page, where we are just supposed to pretend that Joe Biden wrote this," said Tommy Craggs, former executive editor of Gawker Media and now politics editor at Slate. (Full disclosure: I sometimes play pick-up basketball with Craggs.) "We are religious in terms of preserving the voice of the athlete," responded Hoenig, who sees the byline question as overblown by media insiders.
The Tribune says it has accumulated more than 60 million page views for its 900 posts, with the average visitor sticking around for about five minutes. Revenue is minimal, as there were no advertisers during the launch. The Tribune began producing video series last summer in which brands such as Powerade, Toyota, and Chocolate Milk pay to insert themselves. "I don't think there's enough ad dollars around to support all the stuff that's out there right now, and if you get into that race, you're doomed," said Hoenig. "You're just chasing the hits, and you'll never catch up with the Facebooks of the world or the ESPN.coms of the world."
The Players' Tribune, in other words, is starting to look and sound like most other digital media companies. It balances the high with the low, churns out hits and misses, and learns as it goes. The business model is yet to be determined. Jon Sakoda, a general partner at venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates who led a $15 million round of fundraising last summer, said the Tribune might add a premium subscription offering with additional videos and possibly live video chats with athletes.
Messler, in an interview last fall, spoke of the days before Jeter retired, when the Tribune was only an idea. She and Jeter would see hyperventilating sports headlines and imagine their athlete-oriented publication setting things straight. The Tribune still does these "pushback" stories, letting Harvey weigh in on his innings limit, for instance. But the focus has shifted toward putting out stories that expand the scope of sports conversation, rather than amend it. "We’re finding stories that maybe wouldn’t have existed otherwise," Messler told the audience in Boston.