Portland Trailblazers star Damian Lillard has joined PlayersTV, the athlete-owned sports network that launched on Samsung TVs in March, as an equity partner and content provider, the company announced on Thursday. Lillard joins an investor roster of more than 30 athletes, including Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Bauer, Travis Kelce, and Ken Griffey Jr.
As part of the deal, Lillard will get a documentary series about his basketball career, “Dame,” and a new original show “Sessions,” in which he makes music with notable musicians, both on PlayersTV this year.
Lillard is just the latest pro athlete to look to new media ventures as the place to invest off the court. In 2014, Derek Jeter launched The Players’ Tribune, and it quickly became a home for confessional first-person blog posts by athletes as well as a place many of them chose to break news about their career moves. The late Kobe Bryant and his business partner Jeff Stibel launched VC fund Bryant Stibel in 2016 and the firm went heavy on media investments, including The Players’ Tribune. Andre Agassi in 2016 invested in the athlete media platform Unscriptd, which sold to The Players’ Tribune in 2018. LeBron James and his business partner Maverick Carter have created a media empire, including their video platform Uninterrupted, and have produced shows for HBO, Showtime, and Starz.
What is it that has made media so attractive?
For Lillard, it’s about having control over his own story.
“We all have our unique stories and our unique interests, our things that we love to do, away from what we're known for,” Lillard said in the latest episode of Yahoo Finance Presents. “And there's platforms for us to exercise that. But there's not a lot of platforms where you can control that content, where you can use your creativity and share your story and have control of that content. So in a situation like this [with PlayersTV], where I'm able to do that, that's really important, especially while we're in this time of ownership and control, and doing things yourself and pushing that line.”
Chris Paul, one of the earliest investors in PlayersTV, made a similar point in an interview with Yahoo Finance in October: “I think the appeal is that athletes finally realize, all of us realize, Who can tell our stories better than us, right?”
PlayersTV is a 24/7 channel that launched last March exclusively on SamsungTV Plus but has also inked distribution agreements with LG, SlingTV, Roku, Philo, Vizio, and Xumo. Its current reach is 120 million devices.
The vast majority of the content on PlayersTV is currently licensed either from third-party production studios or directly from the athlete partners (which means the athletes can invest in PlayersTV and still have their own separate production studios, and many of them do).
Flip to the channel at a random time and you might see something like “Manny,” a 2014 documentary about Manny Pacquiao, or episodes of “WTF Baron Davis,” a comedy series from Fuse TV, or episodes of “Bauer Bytes,” a talk show from Trevor Bauer’s content studio Momentum. PlayersTV will soon create more shows in-house.
Planning to be 50% athlete-owned
PlayersTV parent company Players Media Group also announced last month a new business vertical, ProClass, which offers recorded training classes from the likes of Lillard, Paul, Allen Iverson, DeMar Derozan, and Kyle Korver.
Nancy Pingitore, a former Tennis Channel exec who was brought on as CEO of Players Media Group, says that every time PlayersTV announces a new athlete partner, “The phone starts ringing with athletes coming out of the woodwork wanting to know how they can get involved,” and the platform isn’t choosy about bringing on new athletes. “We are genuinely about the collective, so it doesn’t matter what sport you play, or what level of athlete you are, as long as you’re a professional athlete, whether you’re a Tier 1 globally recognized athlete, the caliber of a Chris Paul or Dame Lillard, or a secondary or tertiary level athlete that is equally important to the company. They all promote and support and amplify each other through their social media, regardless of what their reach is.”
Each new athlete investor gets an equity stake, and PlayersTV is on a path toward being 50% athlete-owned, Pingitore says, though it is not there yet. “Some of the athletes are just check writers, some are check writers with content who have committed to providing content every year, and some are all three: check writers, content providers, and marketing ambassadors.”
The athletes don’t sign exclusivity agreements, so they have the right to create and sell content to any other networks if they wish. “If any of these athletes want to create something and put it on Uninterrupted or Whistle Sports,” Pingitore says, “they certainly can do that.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic created the worst timing possible for Quibi, a mobile-only short-form video network that launched in April 2020 and shut down in October, Pingitore says the pandemic helped PlayersTV, which launched in March 2020. “People are at home, looking for entertainment on their TVs.”
‘An opportunity for people to become fans of us as people’
Damian Lillard sees his PlayersTV move as just one part of his expanding off-the-court portfolio, and each move is about showing fans who he is apart from basketball, in particular his rap career as Dame D.O.L.L.A. He cites his newest ad for Hulu as an example: it shows him in the sound booth, performing a rap that he wrote himself, rather than just stating the tagline, “Hulu has live sports.” He also speaks over a catchy beat in his newest ad for Gatorade sub-brand Bolt 24.
“In the past it was like, I was the biggest Michael Jordan fan ever, and all I knew was his performances on the floor,” Lillard says. “I didn't see many interviews or see what he did off the court and things like that. I knew he was in ‘Space Jam,’ and that was about it. But I think what we have now is an opportunity for people to become fans of us as people, and not just fans of us as athletes. I think just that alone takes us out of that box of, ‘He's just an athlete.’”
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and specializes in sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.