When NBA great LeBron James announced he was coming home to Cleveland in 2014, he wrote a letter in Sports Illustrated. He is a superstar, after all, so any news outlet with a brain was going to let him tell his story in his own words. Most athletes, however, didn’t have that luxury.

That was about to change.

While SI was enjoying the summer of James, another platform — The Players’ Tribune — was preparing to launch that would fundamentally change how athletes tell their stories.

You know how nuance is often lost in translation? How soundbites sometimes pop up bereft of context and secondhand accounts butcher the essence of a story? Well, The Players’ Tribune is quietly remaking the relationship between athletes and the media by giving athletes a platform of their own. Founder Derek Jeter has said his goal for the site is to “transform how athletes and newsmakers share information.”

I’ve been fascinated with The Players’ Tribune since it launched because it has taken the megaphone away from sports reporters and put it into the hands of athletes. Keyon Dooling on anxiety and depression; Alecko Eskandarian on concussions in soccer; Pau Gasol on gender equality and female coaches. Every person has a story, and The Players’ Tribune has enabled athletes to skip the canned “we’re just trying to win” post-game remarks and talk about their childhoods, their families, race and gender and mental health and whatever else is important to them. Plus, like every smart digital platform, it features a mix of written content, podcasts, videos, and photographs. Some of the content is one-off, some is serial. And some of the content is branded, but not in the typical obtrusive-product-placement kind of way.

Ad Age Calls The Players’ Tribune a “Storytelling Revolution.”

The Players' Tribune - my story

Ad Age recently published a terrific article about The Players’ Tribune and branded content. It reads, in part:

In the world of branded content, The Players’ Tribune represents a new wrinkle, as the company bases its revenue almost entirely on the creation of high-quality sponsored stories, following a game plan intended to leverage its greatest asset: the athletes… Success in branded content is all due to one guiding principle: authenticity. Instead of gauging success by traditional metrics like numbers of clicks, the site focuses on engagement—the length of time someone spends reading a story.

And here’s why this matters:

“It’s very easy to buy audience,” says [CEO Jeff] Levick, who claims the site boasts an average engagement time of seven minutes and 45 seconds per piece. “But it’s very hard to buy audience that will actually engage with the content. For us, things like sharing and commenting mean we have content that is really resonating, that people care about it and didn’t just see it. This is what brands should be paying attention to: How do I insert myself in those authentic narratives that consumers are caring about the most?”

I’ve talked a lot about quality content, trust, authenticity, and why you shouldn’t buy followers. The Players’ Tribune is putting all these factors into play. It’s part revolution and part evolution and relentlessly focused on its mission. And it’s working, so if you haven’t been paying attention, you should start now.

Photo by Photo by Nick Fewings (UnSplash).

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