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The Players’ Tribune on its viral formula and critics: ‘we’re not here to polish reputations’

Is the real Raheem Sterling the gun tattoo-toting bad influence of tabloid caricature or the sensitive family man pouring his heart out to The Players’ Tribune? It was telling that when England’s most talked about footballer wanted to set the record straight after months of media criticism, he chose to tell his story on a US-based sports website that few people in his homeland had ever heard of – until he helped change all that.

“You know… it’s sad that I even have to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway,” Sterling writes in a first-person article typical of The Players’ Tribune’s style. “There’s a perception in certain parts of the media that I love ‘bling’. I love diamonds. I love to show off. I really don’t understand where that comes from. Especially when I bought my mum a house, it was unbelievable what some people were writing. I think it’s really sad that people do that. They hate what they don’t even know.”

Like the man a nation has been pinning its hopes on, The Players’ Tribune has had to fend off its own share of what it would call media misconceptions since Sterling’s article fired it into the public consciousness this month. One particularly sceptical take came in a piece headlined 'Raheem Sterling’s article is brilliant but did he actually write it?' by The Spectator. “Does the Players’ Tribune offer an authentic depiction,” the magazine asked, “or simply one that the player themselves want to present? Is it journalism or PR?”

“Now I can empathise with the athletes we work with,” laughs Sean Conboy, The Players’ Tribune's executive editor.

The website was founded in 2014 by Derek Jeter, a retired Major League Baseball All-Star and former New York Yankees captain who could never have been described as being loquacious with the media during his stellar sporting career. Its premise is simple: to be a place for athletes to tell their own stories, in their own words, in video or most commonly in the form of bylined written articles. And given an unfettered platform, A-list sporting stars have shared some remarkably revealing – and sometimes harrowing – personal stories.

Having hit 3.4m unique views a month in the US (Comscore), The Players’ Tribune identified the World Cup as a way to introduce itself to international audiences and set itself the challenge of recruiting a player from each of the 32 competing nations to take part in a special project for the tournament. It managed 27, with Argentina’s Angel di Maria, Brazil’s Paulinho and Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani among those joining Sterling in sharing intimate details of their private lives. An early breakthrough came from Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku, whose richly descriptive essay on his impoverished upbringing in Antwerp drew 1.6m views and an average time on page of more than seven minutes, according to Conboy.

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The pieces have shown the players in a new light, with Gary Lineker calling Sterling’s article “wonderfully enlightening” and even professional contrarian Piers Morgan acknowledging that it showed a "different side" to his "flashy, cocky footballer image". But as Conboy’s Twitter mentions attest, the praise has been tempered by repeated inquisitions about whether The Players’ Tribune is only here to varnish sports stars’ reputations.

“We're very well aware that this could be used to polish an athlete's image,” says Conboy, who wrote for Sports Illustrated and Wired before joining The Players’ Tribune upon its launch. “The only reason we have existed and thrived for the last three and half years is our entire staff is not interested in that at all. We know that's not what readers are interested in.

“Our most successful stories are the ones that have nothing to do with just trying to burnish the reputation of an athlete. They have something to do with them really revealing themselves and saying things they've maybe never said before.”

So how exactly does it work? Conboy says there isn’t a set formula; he and his team approach sporting luminaries they think will have a tale to tell and they also receive “hundreds of requests” a month from athletes (or their representatives) who want to contribute. “Any time anyone reaches out, our first question is – ok, that's great, but one: what is the story, what do they actually want to talk about? And two: we need to talk to that athlete right now if they're willing to do that.”

Are the pieces ghost-written? Often – as was the case with Sterling’s and Lukaku’s – yes, although that’s perhaps not all that surprising in a world where sports stars regularly pump out ‘autobiographies’ which are penned by professional writers or put their names to newspaper columns which they in fact dictate to journalists. Nevertheless, Conboy says he receives “tonnes of submissions from athletes who write their first draft” and for those that have the strongest merit, he and his team of 10 editors “do what editors do” and “try to make it something great, asking questions, fact checking, pressing for more detail”.

Complete control

What has vexed some observers is that athletes have complete control over their story – including the power to veto – in a manner they wouldn’t usually in their dealings with the press.

“A lot of people who are now new to us are asking about the process, about copy approval and all these things,” Conboy says. “It's funny because I don't know what this would be without copy approval. Inherently these are athletes who are often going out on a limb and are really pouring their hearts out in some respects and that is the entire point of this, they have the control and the trust to actually go there and decide in the end what they're comfortable with [sharing].

“We've had stories where athletes are talking about sexual assault, depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, really difficult subjects. We have an initial conversation with them to really drill down and find out what exactly they want to talk about, what their story is, the depth of it and how we want to formulate the story. From there it is really refining it into something great and concise and interesting and something that might even move people.”

Satisfied there is an audience for its content outside the US, The Players' Tribune is planning to step up its expansion plans in Europe. It already has offices in Barcelona thanks to a partnership it struck with Spanish star Gerard Pique and his investment group Kosmos in March (athletes themselves, including former NBA star Kobe Bryant, are among The Players' Tribune's biggest financial backers). Now, chief executive Jeff Levick tells The Drum, it will increase commercial operations in London.

A former chief revenue officer of Spotify, Levick has been building a commercial model at The Players’ Tribune that is largely based around selling branded content. The pitch to advertisers trumpets not only the site’s growing traffic but also its time on page metric which Levick says averages “five to seven minutes per story”.

He is not ruling out introducing a subscription model – à la his former employer – at some stage. “We’re looking at different monetisation routes,” he says. “Subscription is certainly one of them. Right now, especially as a new platform in Europe, our main focus is on working with the athlete community, telling great stories and increasing our presence with the fans. And then seeing what direction that takes, whether it's advertising-supported or direct to consumer via subscription or OTT.”

The mention of over-the-top is instructive because The Players’ Tribune is on the verge of partnering with streaming services to bring its content to life in longer form, documentary style broadcasts. “We are working not just direct to consumer but also with larger distributors as well, like the Netflix and the Hulus of the world, to build series-based content that lives on those platforms,” Levick says.

Those stories will once again seek to portray players in a way we haven’t seen them before. Will it be their true selves on screen? Maybe, maybe not. But have we really been seeing their true selves all these years in the mainstream media anyway? Raheem Sterling, presumably, would argue not.

Featured by The Drum

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