Derek Jeter was one of the most guarded athletes around the press, and his post-playing career now seems devoted to pushing the press away even further. Last week he announced a new site, The Players’ Tribune, a website where pro athletes can share their thoughts, feelings, and stories directly with readers, rather than through a reporter’s lens.
The Players’ Tribune launch raised big questions for established media—most notably, what does sports journalism look like if athletes decide that reporters are dispensable? But this isn’t the first time those questions are being asked. A company called SportsBlog has been doing roughly the same thing for two years, providing a platform for NBA, NFL, and other leagues’ players to communicate directly to fans. It is currently the 21st-biggest sports site, according to comScore. And its success—and limitations—say a lot about what the future of sports journalism holds.
SportsBlog is the brainchild of Roy Dano, a former New York investment banker who lives in Nashville. He launched it in 2011 as a place where most of the content would be written by fans, similar to the initial business model of enormous sites like Bleacher Report and SB Nation. Both those sites had been accused of profiting off of fans’ free labor, though, so Dano also instituted a revenue-sharing model for his most active writers.
But by 2013, Dano realized the site needed a surer way to drive traffic, and something to give it credibility amid the noise of armchair sports sites. So he tapped into pro athletes’ collective annoyance with the media, and offered them their own platform—and complete creative freedom. "There is so much manipulation in media, and a lot of athletes are skeptical," says Dano. It’s not as if athletes are deprived of public forums, but the blogging platform offered something that social media doesn’t: a way to tell long, detailed stories. If an athlete wasn’t interested in writing their own posts, no problem: One of SportsBlog’s 15 employees would simply interview them, then write the post in the athlete’s own words. The player would then post the link on their various social media platforms, driving traffic to SportsBlog.
Dano first approached the men’s major leagues, but didn’t get anywhere. "There was interest, but the bigger leagues are a bit more cautious and guarded with how they adopt things," he says. So he decided to focus on the WNBA, a league that could benefit more from the publicity. "The WNBA was really receptive," says Dano. "Once we broke that ice, that validated things. We had one good partner, and they talked to their colleagues in the other leagues." There are now about 40 WNBA players using the service, the most from any league. "Just about every player idea that we’ve gone to SportsBlog with, they’ve accepted and helped out with," says WNBA Players Association director of operations, Pam Wheeler.
Current and former NBA and NFL players soon came on board as well. Since last October, SportsBlog doubled the number of blogs it hosts, to 20,000. (Most of those are written by fans.) It averages about 8 million unique visitors a month.
Is this the future of sports journalism—cutting out reporters, so players can talk straight to fans? A quick scan of the latest posts reveal some editorial challenges. Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Brandon Williams recently wrote about being a father, and began his post this way: "This season is going really well (2-1 is a lot better than 1-2)." His teammate Justin Forsett wrote about his faith, and begins this way: "I’m glad to say this season is going great." For critical fans, that won’t exactly replace ESPN. In fact, it’s hard to find a post that feels news-making or otherwise unguarded, though some writers, like WNBA player Layshia Clarendon, write long and personal posts that will no doubt appeal to their biggest fans.
With the right amount of ambition, the platform can be used for intriguing stories that no mainstream media would cover. Nine-year NBA veteran Charlie Villanueva proved that this past summer. He’d become a free agent and was looking for a new team to hire him, but knew it wouldn’t be easy: As an older player who’s never been a star, he wasn’t high on any team’s must-have list. So on SportsBlog, he chronicled his quest through weekly six-minute video clips that showed him working out, talking to his agent, and traveling to tryouts. Despite having 212,000 followers on Twitter and another 131,000 on Instagram, Villanueva chose SportsBlog because he felt he could tell a more complex story through longer videos than bite-sized social media quips. "What sold me on SportsBlog was that I could control the message," he says. "I could tell my story the way I want it to be told. This is an important part of my career, and I don’t want it to be misconstrued."
The Villanueva project was intimate and unique, but it also revealed the drawbacks of giving athletes complete editorial control. Villanueva’s last post was on September 10, from his hotel room in Dallas. It read in part:
"If you follow free agency (and sorry we haven’t posted in awhile but a lot of unanswered questions) you know there are reports about me agreeing with the Mavs. We are still working out the details . . . wish I could tell you more. So stay tuned as my saga continues."
Then his story abruptly stopped, with no further details about how a deal came together on the verge of training camp. (Villanueva did ultimately sign with Dallas.) Therein lies the rub with athletes telling their stories as they see fit: They have little incentive to share the gritty aspects of their lives that typically excite readers. It’s a fact both SportsBlog and Players Tribune will have to grapple with.
"Here's how we look at it," explains Dano. "We give the athletes a platform to express themselves, which means they have the liberty to discuss whatever topics they choose. It’s not our job to put up the velvet ropes and decide who gets to say what. Our mission is to build the technology that empowers every fan or player to share their passions and tell their stories."
Dano argues that unless athletes are superstars or associated with a negative headline, their story is less likely to be covered by mainstream media anyway. So SportsBlog is an ideal outlet for a journeyman to tell his under-the-radar tale or for a retired athlete to weigh in on a timely topic, as former NFL player Eddie George did with the Adrian Peterson situation.
"With that being said, we have noticed that athletes are approaching this newfound publishing freedom with caution," adds Dano. "It’s no secret that each pro athlete is a brand, a business, and that anything they share online will live on forever. We have to respect our athletes’ personal lives and comfort level in what they are, in fact, sharing. SportsBlog is as unfiltered as it can be." (The Players' Tribune seems to also be facing this issue: Its first big piece features Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson promoting the National Domestic Violence Hotline.) But as with any sports publication, the readers will ultimately make the decision about how open they want their athletes to be—and a reader’s standard could be quite different from that of a sports editor.
It remains to be seen if The Players’ Tribune will draw more interesting stories from athletes, but Dano says he isn’t concerned: To him, the competitor site simply validates SportsBlog’s idea. And although Jeter’s site may soak up the MVPs of the sporting world, SportsBlog can still offer a wider variety of names to feed the incessant appetite of sports fans. "We have our eyes set on being a top 10 comScore site within the next 18 months," says Dano. "I strongly believe we are going to achieve that."