In just the 7 months since the very first video went up on his new Youtube channel, JJ Redick has amassed over 205,000 subscribers. For the NBA shooting guard and magnetic podcaster, this milestone for his podcast The Old Man & The Three feels a little bittersweet.
“The reaction we’ve had on YouTube has been amazing but I really wish I had owned my channel and RSS feed these last five years. But we didn’t. So we started from zero on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple back in August” the 15-year NBA veteran explained last fall on The Game Plan podcast with Jay Kapoor (yours truly) and co-host Tim Katt. “What you’re seeing across the board” Redick elaborated “Is athletes realizing that ownership is all that really matters.”
Since his departure from Spotify-owned The Ringer last summer, Redick and co-host Tommy Alter have set up their own production company to publish and promote not only The Old Man & The Three but a promising slate of sports and lifestyle content. Redick and his company ThreeFourTwo productions are not alone in this shift, nor is the sentiment of wanting ownership over their work product limited just to athletes.
One of the understated consequences of the coronavirus and the subsequent shelter-in-place is the explosion of new celebrity and athlete-owned media, across publishing, podcasting, and video. Like most of us celebrities, artists, and athletes (collectively referred here as Talent) found themselves in arrested development throughout 2020. But unlike most of us, these multi-hyphenates used their unprecedented me-time to by-pass traditional media routes and connect more directly to their fans.
2020 was just the match that lit up dry tinder which has been building between celebrity-obsessed media and Talent for the past two decades. The social media age prioritizes authenticity over polish, elevates individuals over institutions, and has shown us the importance of building trust with an audience well before trying to convert them into customers. We’ve now entered a decade where every major multi-hyphenate will eschew borrowing media airwaves and instead opt to build their own distribution. And I’d argue, for these same reasons, that Talent shouldn’t be the only ones.
Going Direct to Fans With Authenticity & Access
As the financial barriers to self-generate high-cadence, high-quality content came way down, athletes that could do so created their own media brands — shunning the once symbiotic relationship between sports media and Talent. Redick’s NBA peers have in particular been leading this charge. From LeBron James’ Uninterrupted, Baron Davis’ BIG & SLIC productions, Kevin Durant’s The Boardroom, or Matt Barnes’ All The Smoke — the common theme for these athletes has been wanting to be seen as more than elite entertainers on the court. The irony that many of these newly minted media moguls are the very same athletes that the sports media negged on the daily is not lost on me either.
Speaking more broadly, the media’s obsession with high profile individuals for clicks and views created severe distrust between Talent and media, which only perpetuated itself. Lack of trust means Talent limits their access to media and that denial of access means celebrity-covering media feels justified in writing or speaking the narratives they want, ultimately pushing both sides further apart.
While some of these alternate publishing efforts evolved to be indistinguishable from non-authentic PR, the audio format has been particularly successful. Partly so because it allows listeners and fans to hear the unpolished, authentic stories from the Talent directly. Multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director and now wildly popular podcast host of “Armchair Expert” Dax Shepard opened up to his 20 million listeners last year about his relapse with opiates and found that his tribe of “Armcherries” was beyond empathetic to his struggles.
“I think the antidote to shame is recognizing that we’re all sharing in these missteps and in these failures, and I think there’s just great comfort in knowing, yeah, it’s hard,” Shepard told The Current‘s Matt Galloway. “It is hard to walk through this life and not break stuff along the way.” Opening up to his fans with vulnerability, Shepard, using his own media platform, got to control the narrative that for many decades prior, would have been fodder for tabloids, entertainment news, and late-night comedy.
Like Shepherd or Redick, the wisest among these new-age talk show hosts from supermodel Ashely Graham (podcast: Pretty Big Deal) or actress-comedian Anna Faris (podcast: Unqualified) have also realized that building your audience on social media alone doesn’t mean you own your audience. As business priorities of platforms change, algorithms are retooled, or the platforms themselves are disrupted by new startups, truly being direct means building a relationship that can’t be de-platformed or disrupted without your involvement. Talent’s lesson to the rest of us: If your primary relationship with your audience is on Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, or (ahem) someone else’s publication — you don’t actually own your audience, you’re still just renting it.
Building Trust With Individuals Over Institutions
While social media elevates authenticity and access, it has also commoditized the dissemination of facts and exponentially increased the speed at which lies spread. This created enormous economic pressure on traditional media to report the news even faster, but try to maintain their (now-prohibitively) high journalistic standards — which only further increased distrust of traditional media institutions. Thus, as Axios recently reported, “58% of Americans [now] think news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology than with forming public opinion”. For better or (more likely) for worse, we no longer get our information from independent journalism entities, we choose to get it from individuals we trust.
This migration of public trust from institutions to individuals has also redefined our belief in what an “expert” truly means. It’s given way to new content platforms where we would much rather hear from celebrities and influencers, than industry veterans and PhDs. This has created a massive opportunity which platforms like Masterclass, Calm and The Skills are already capturing and monetizing upon. But why should Talent continue letting platforms they don’t own, leverage their celebrity and content for little or no upside? I believe the latest wave of celebrity fitness apps may hold the blueprint.
At first glance, there are thousands of Youtube channels with programmed workout routines and an equal or greater number of would-be celebrity trainers thirsting for your business on Instagram. Unfortunately for them, none come with a near-daily dose of Chris Hemsworth right to your phone. With content designed and tailored by Hemsworth’s trusted personal training, nutrition, and mindfulness experts, Centr Fit differentiates itself by both Talent association and ownership. Hemsworth is not only co-founder and chief spokesperson, he also openly shares videos of himself within the app, powering through the very same workouts his trainers prescribe to us mortals. He also pops on regularly to create delightful holistic content, like protein smoothie-making competitions between his nutritionists or reading comedic mindfulness passages in his signature Aussie baritone.
The proof of expertise is in the pudding (or, you know, lack thereof)— it’s clear to anyone that his program works, which further elevates his team of experts, draws in the audience, and keeps the value of Hemsworth’s content entirely on a platform that he owns. And Hemsworth is not alone in building a media brand around his fitness. With many gyms closed in 2020, celebrity fitness icons from Kate Upton and her Strong4Me Fitness to Carrie Underwood and her Fit52 platform have been turning adoring fans into workout buddies every day. This has the added benefit of Talent deepening their connection with their audience because Talent has now become part of the user’s daily or weekly workout ritual.
While the rest of us may not be fitness influencers, we all have our areas of growing specialty and expertise. In a world where individuals are trusted more than institutions, it’s important now more than ever to build an audience you can own. Best exemplified by the recent uptick in thought leadership newsletters, everyone from Talent to journalists to venture capitalists, recognize the importance of building a direct relationship with their audience, independent of the audience’s relationship with the writer’s employer. In the best case, consider your personal audience a negotiating chip at promotion time or a springboard into entrepreneurship. In the worst-case, consider it a hedge should you find yourself unemployed by a downsizing.
Creating Career Optionality and Monetization
For the past decade, traditional Hollywood decision-makers mocked social media influencers and digital creators as being merely junior varsity Talent. That has changed drastically in just the past few years. “[In] over half the casting jobs, the question asked is “What’s their Instagram handle and what are their social numbers,” says United Entertainment manager Jason Newman. In perhaps the biggest shift in this acceptance, New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz reported this week that “TikTok stars and social media creators can now join Hollywood’s Top Union” SAG-AFTRA via a new influencer agreement. Just as the old Hollywood studio system made way for the avant-garde indie film era, so too will the current system make space for a new generation of Talent-owned media.
The key lesson in all of this for A-List Talent is that their career longevity will now depend on whether or not they have a strong direct line to their audience. Not one that is dependant on Instagram, TikTok, or the social media platform-du-jour. They need direct, platform-agnostic connections, like email and phone numbers, that could convert into real revenue at the movie theatre or the arenas. Similarly, Talent’s closeness with the audience is what makes fans want to buy and wear merch with Talent’s logo or slogans as a way to signal their affiliation to other fans. For that last point, in particular, owning one’s audience also creates monetization opportunities for Talent to monetize their personal brand directly online.
Owned media as a springboard into e-commerce has proven to be a tested and true strategy over the past decade. From Gwyneth’s Goop Newsletter, launched 2008, foretelling her multi-hundred-million-dollar wellness empire, to Emily Weiss’ Into the Gloss blog as a precursor to billion-dollar cosmetics juggernaut Glossier, the modern consumer products playbook is to first, build distribution and audience, then launch a product to serve them. 2PM’s Web Smith dubs this fading of traditional demarcation between media and commerce: the “Law of Linear Commerce“.
I believe this applies to the recent influx of celebrity-driven media brands best of all. Modern consumers are tired of endorsers hocking wares we all know they are paid to believe in. We want authenticity and access, but not at the expense of trust. Celebrity media — be it video, podcast, publishing, or some combination — creates opportunities for Linear Commerce by not only having a direct channel to market the product but also a way to demonstrate how Talent truly embodies the values of the brand they have created. The best of these channels also become a way to solicit feedback from future customers on what problems they have and would like to see solved. Whether you’re a celebrity brand or just building your startup in the shadows, your company’s ability to go fast and in the right direction is dependant on the quality of its feedback loops. You should be building the mechanism for audience feedback and conversion, well before you’ve even envisioned a potential product worth selling.
CREATOR ECONOMY VS. HYPHENATE MEDIA
You’ve heard of the Creator Economy, in which influencers steadily grow their Youtube, Twitch, and Instagram followings by creating content, and in doing so with consistency become modern-day celebrities. The real beauty of this public career growth is that their fans feel like a part of the success, taking an unknown entity and launching them to stardom. Unlike the old Hollywood system cigar-smoking executives would pick the next crop of the stars, this path to media success feels transparent and equitable. The audience follows the struggles and gets to celebrate the success.
In contrast, A-List athletes, artists, or celebrity multi-hyphenates are doing the Creator Economy in reverse and are thus faced with their own unique challenges. They’ve already built multi-million strong social followings through their day jobs. But now, just like JJ Redick or others before him, they’ve started from zero to build a media audience independent from their day job. Unlike their creator economy counterparts, they also lack the benefit of iterating in relative obscurity until they find a personal voice and content format that resonates and scales. There is tremendous pressure on Talent to get the launch of their media just right, or be mocked by detractors who’d just love to see celebrities fail.
To succeed, I believe these new Talent-owned media brands will embrace the very same authenticty and vulnerability that their fans crave from their favorite content creators. Let them in on the struggles of starting from zero. Show them the ugly side of building a business regardless of how many Instagram followers they have. It’s not about being aspirational, it’s about being relatable. Perhaps JJ Redick himself said it best: “Social media and the talking heads have done a lot over the years to de-humanize the athlete. So what we try to do is humanize the athlete.”
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