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A New Approach to Branded Content Benefits NFL Players and Partners

Armed with a wealth of NFL players and their passions, ACE Media is in position to grow opportunities for both brand partners and player brands alike.

Scot Chartrand

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Photo via ACE Media

When it comes to broadcast content, the National Football League has been “King of the Hill” for a long time. Television ratings and record-breaking audience numbers of regular-season games, the playoffs, and especially the Super Bowl have reaffirmed this sentiment for decades.

In the marketplace of advertising, though, there has long been a supply-and-demand gap between companies seeking to improve their brand and marketable NFL stars. Peyton Manning couldn’t endorse everything, right?

Yet, just being an NFL player is a big deal. Most of these players were “big men on campus” before arriving at the professional level — and even more have an interesting story of how they got there. Still, they’re not too different from the average person. They have passions, interests, and skills they have cultivated over the years and products and brands they use that match.

These stories have value and are worth telling.

Enter ACE Media as a matchmaker between these athletes and brands looking for better ways to tell their stories, and you have virtually limitless possibilities for what has become a multitude of win-win situations.

The ACE Media Story

Athlete Content and Entertainment Media — known more popularly as ACE Media — has steadily grown since its founding in 2015. Founded as a subsidiary of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and owned by the players and their union, ACE Media holds a very valuable and differentiating property: NFLPA media rights.

With headquarters based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the company positions itself as delivering a new and unique approach in sports content.

READ MORE: Amazon Gears Up for the Big Game

This transformative path is being led by ACE Media’s Chief Executive Officer Scott Langerman, who arrived at the company with a senior background at media properties such as Turner, Comcast SportsNet, and SB Nation.

Langerman explained that, initially, the company began with concepts such as pitching long-form series to CBS and Amazon.

It did not take long, however, to find out where the sweet spot was for the business.

“What was unexpected, was the move to branded content and how it really accelerated.”  Langerman noted. “Without knowing its power initially, branded content development accelerated and soon became a healthy piece of the business.”

In a short amount of time, ACE Media went from fielding incoming phone calls for opportunities to a proactive model, fueled by generating business for brand partners.

Head of the NFLPA DeMaurice Smith has referred to the company’s work as a “transformative chapter” in the union’s evolution, and star players like Von Miller and Richard Sherman are among its fans.

The business model calls for a holistic and platform agnostic approach that leverages customizable content to generate year-round programming. The content pairs the athlete, a partnership with a content provider, and a company brand to deliver experiences for fans, consumers, and companies that are more than a 30-second spot in the middle of a television timeout.

Catching Kelce is an example of ACE Media’s work as a television series on E! Entertainment Television featuring Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in a reality dating competition.

CampusLore — jointly launched by ACE Media, the Brandr Group, and the NFLPA — is a digital media brand leveraging both storytelling and weekly in-season insights into the world of college football that features the expertise of various NFL players as guests. From interviews with players such as Deshaun Watson, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, to weekly reviews of college football topics that has included players like Brian Poole, Calvin Ridley, Takeo Spikes, Jalen Ramsey, and Marquise Lee to name a few, CampusLore has amassed a wealth of online content.

In addition to produced shows, ACE Media has placed NFL players on television shows as guests such as “Celebrity Family Feud” and has also facilitated articles written by the athletes in publications such as The Players’ Tribune.

“Tuesday Night Fortnite presented by Fanatics” on Twitch has become a vehicle for NFL players to share their passion of gaming with fans — that also serves as a cross-over promotion for that week’s upcoming Thursday Night Football game by featuring players from each of the teams on the schedule.

All told, the agency has placed a wealth of NFL players into opportunities to grow their presence in their handful of years in operation.

A Story of Relationships

The NFLPA license is one thing for ACE Media, but its strength is built on two building blocks: relationships and stories.

Possessing an end-to-end content production model off the power of relationships with professional athletes, distribution partners, and brand partners, ACE Media is able to grow concepts from start to finish.

The cycle moves from concept, to development and packaging, to athlete selection to production, and finally distribution.

The players within the NFLPA comprise a competitive advantage of what had often been untapped assets. Building a relationship of trust with the athletes to help control and find the right, authentic opportunities for them to shine has been where ACE Media has had its success.

ACE Media Head of Production Dave Targan has been in the middle of content production for the company and sees one major key since he joined the company a year ago. Coming from a documentary background, Targan believes a compelling story can be told in every form of content — branded content, a documentary, or a digital series to name a few.

“A story-driven approach says something unique about the player,” shared Targan. “Sharing a player’s plight, how they got there, and what they’re doing to bring good all offer intriguing storylines.”

All players are unique, and Targan’s favorite part of the job is getting the players engaged in the work.

That work is repeatedly described as “transformative” for the athlete at ACE Media, and Langerman described the path to arrive the customizable content the company creates.

“Historically, athlete content existed through very few channels and often the most you would see from a player was their postgame interview with a microphone in their face while wearing a towel,” Langerman reflected. “Now, people consume content anywhere — on their phone, on their fridge.”

Langerman describes ACE Media as sitting on a sandbox, but putting the Lego pieces together in a different way.

Players have always had outside interests —many in areas like music or cooking, to name a few. The difference is now that the audience is able to see this. For the athlete, it means an opportunity to get an early jump on a second career that matches their passion without having to wait for the spotlight of being an NFL player to fade with retirement.

“NFL players have their day job, but they also have passions they pursue away from the job, just like regular guys,” Langerman said.

The information about those passions is right at the company’s fingertips as well and serves as a major help for matching players with the right opportunities according to Langerman. “The NFLPA has a literal database about players — this player loves this, here’s where they’re from, and other anecdotal information. Additionally, we lean on agents a lot.”

Players are also having fun producing the content, and it shows.

“Sports are supposed to be fun. That enjoyment of the work is the ‘secret sauce.’ When it’s there it shows up better as a product,” Targan said.

“They ask us questions, and it is fun to educate them on content development and production. We provide them with the concepts and ideas to start, and the players will inevitably add their own spin. They are regular dudes. We put it in the arena, and they knock it out of the park.”

One recent example of an unexpected breakout performance came from Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch who recently participated in a “Fortnite” event.

Targan remembered thinking, “Vander Esch came off as the coolest guy in the world to fans. It was a wonderful way to get to know athletes like him and see them excel in this space. The audience 100-percent could see how great this guy was, how compelling, and we started thinking, ‘let’s find another opportunity for him.’”

Plans for Super Bowl LIII and Beyond

While ACE Media has been able to deliver on much of its promise, the company recognized there was additional opportunity in the market that required infrastructure it didn’t have.

Allied Global Marketing saw the same thing and spun off Allied Sports to increase its presence in the sports media space. The goal: to connect brand partners and publishers with consumers through similar branded sports content.

Thus, last November, the two partnered to take each other’s reach farther than it could go alone and increase their value proposition for clients.

Now, on the dawn of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, ACE Media is showcasing its own story in a “Super Bowl Upfront” in partnership with Allied Sports.

The goal is to “plant a flag in the brand community,” according to Langerman. “Here’s what we do and how we can be a solution. ACE Media can deliver a message for a brand and entertaining content while also helping to build the player’s brand through identifying a brand fit that lines up with passion points of players. It’s still an ad, but it is authentic and more organic.”

While the start of this new partnership will be important to ACE Media Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta, other untapped opportunities still exist. One of those involve regional brands.

READ MORE: Inside Buffalo Wild Wings’ Super Bowl Plans

“All of what we’ve done has been fairly national focused. A local, regional strategy is part of the blueprint,” Langerman added.

Additionally, moving into other sports has “always been part of the thinking, too,” according to Langerman. He pointed out that ACE Media was strategically chosen as the name — not something like NFL Media.

While the company has projects with the NBA players association (NBPA), hockey, and the US Women’s National Soccer team in advance of the 2019 World Cup, they “haven’t had the bandwidth to drop into another sport at the same level as the NFL,” as Langerman shared. “(Extending into additional sports) is a big part of the growth plan, and it’s on the to-do list for 2019.”

Langerman shared that in the next 12 to 18 months, the company will start to make more relationships final in this area to cement its growth plan.

With changes in technology and entertainment consumption, opportunity awaits a new, forward-thinking approach to branded content that is more authentic and close to the consumer and their interests.

The unexpected diamond in mining this opportunity is seeing many new faces on NFL fields shine when given their chance to share their passion and creativity.

On the field, one side wins and another loses. As ACE Media grows its footprint, all sides in the equation can continue to win.

Scot Chartrand is a contributor with Front Office Sports and has worked in program management driving strategic initiatives at a corporate level. He has a passion for helping clients and corporate stakeholders achieve strategic goals while providing change management and optimizing process that drives repeatable results.

Digital Media

Overtime Brings Billboard And Investment News to NBA All-Star Weekend

Overtime, the digital media brand specializing in high school sports, put some of the top teenage basketball players on a billboard in Charlotte.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo via Overtime

NBA All-Stars don’t want overtime on Sunday night. It’s clear 48 minutes is enough for them.

But the All-Stars and the NBA can’t avoid Overtime off the court in Charlotte.

Overtime — the digital media brand specializing in high school sports, not the extra period after regulation — has established its presence at NBA All-Star Weekend. Fans entering the city this weekend are driving right past Overtime’s “All-Stars of the Future” billboard, which features 10 of the nation’s top high school players — LaMelo Ball being the most recognizable — split between East and West (see full list at bottom of article).

“They’re true superstars in their own right,” says Overtime President and Co-Founder Zack Weiner. “I think there’s sort of this love for them that’s insatiable. When you first read about it, ‘Whoa, a high school kid on a billboard,’ it sounds weird and then you’re like, ‘Wait, it makes sense. These guys are global superstars. Why should they not be on billboards?’

“For our audience, it’s just cool. It’s these guys they’ve been watching for the past couple of years and to see them in Charlotte, around the NBA All-Star Game, when obviously, they’re going to be All-Stars in a few years, people that recognize them, it’s why they love Overtime. You feel like you’re on the wave before it’s taken off.”

Weiner, 26, and Overtime CEO and Co-Founder Dan Porter, 52, don’t look like traditional media executives at NBA All-Star Weekends. For the interview, the two walk around The Westin Charlotte in Overtime hoodies, showing off the brand’s merchandise in a hotel full of NBA brass.

“We want to be everywhere,” Porter says. “We want them to be like, ‘I see you guys everywhere. I see on my Instagram feed, I see on YouTube, I see you on television, I see you on the billboard.’ We’re building the biggest sports network in the world.”

Kawhi Leonard happens to walk by during the interview. He says hello to the Overtime duo and flashes what some might consider a rare smile.

“He recognizes Overtime,” Weiner immediately says.

“You see Trae Young walk through the tunnel in his Overtime sweatshirt,” Porter adds, referencing a recent game entrance by the Hawks rookie. “We out here.”

Before starting Overtime in fall 2016, Porter served as Head of Digital at WME with Weiner working on the digital team. In early 2017, Overtime raised $2.5 million in seed funding and in February 2018, the brand announced another $9.5 million in funding, with capital coming from Kevin Durant, among others.

Just this past Thursday, Overtime revealed it has received $23 million in Series B funding, which includes investments from current and former NBA players Carmelo Anthony, Baron Davis and Victor Oladipo. Porter told Variety the company has a valuation of around $100 million.

“I would say that that we’re very strategic about almost everything we do,” Weiner says of the investment announcement corresponding with NBA All-Star Weekend.

Davis can give some perspective as an investor.

“They’ve kind of got their finger on the pulse and these guys are doing a good job of growing that community and looking to be disruptive,” he says, when asked about the billboard. “You don’t find too many young companies like that.”

Just over two years into its lifespan, Overtime is starting to see some of its former high school basketball subjects reach the NBA level (it should be noted Overtime considers its four current main verticals basketball, football, soccer, and esports). Players like Young tip their cap to Overtime, which was on their stories before they were household names.

“When Dan and I started a company that wasn’t something that we proactively thought about,” Weiner says. “I’ve realized that it’s happened. I think it’s taken off even more than we thought in terms of filling content with them, them repping our gear, them retweeting us, posting on Instagram. They definitely recognize sort of the implicit partnership that we’ve had throughout their careers, starting in high school.”

You might have been introduced to Zion Williamson this season, but Overtime fans have been watching Williamson’s dunks for a couple years now. 

For the players on the billboard, this is part of that conveyor belt. Other than Ball, this is a huge boost to these teenagers’ PR campaigns. Overtime is the brand investing in youth basketball content at a grassroots level.

“Some of the guys are more well-known and some are less,” Weiner says of players Overtime covers. “But a core value of what we do is bring recognition to these kids and help build their platform. I mean those guys [on the billboard], I believe will all be in the NBA, but there are some players that we’ve covered that won’t and there’s a lot of value in them growing their social followings and building their brands.”

One of the players, Anthony Edwards, is among the top senior high school recruits in the country, but Mikey Williams is an eighth grader, just starting to get his name out there.

In Charlotte, Overtime is credentialed for all standard NBA media events. One could argue Overtime is a rival to the NBA and its partners, from a content perspective. After all, they draped a billboard over the city hosting the NBA’s premier tourist event.

Porter and Weiner don’t see it that way.

“With retired commissioners, we have an amazing relationship,” Porter laughs, referencing David Stern, who invested in Overtime’s seed round.

“In terms of a formal business partnership, there’s nothing right now, but I was talking to people at the league and they love Overtime,” Weiner says. “They understand the importance to the young community. I think it’s about timing when and if there’s something to be done officially.”

READ MORE: Overtime’s Pop-Up Showcases Commerce Potential for Digital Brands

It might take a few years. Maybe when the players on the Charlotte billboard are in the NBA, that’ll be the time for Overtime and the NBA to partner. After all, those players will remember who brought them to NBA All-Star Weekend first.

For reference, these are the players included on Overtime’s billboard, with their descriptions, as provided by Overtime:

Mikey Williams – Mikey Williams is the best 8th grader in the country. He’s from California and is known for his crazy dunks and LeBron comparisons.

Jalen Green – The most athletic junior in the nation! Jalen Green is from California and dunks on everyone.

RJ Hampton – The Texas point guard can do everything on the court. People say he could play in the NBA right now!!

Cassius Stanley – Cassius is a senior from California. Since 9th grade he has been throwing down viral dunks. He legit floats in the air.

LaMelo Ball – The son of LaVar and brother of Lonzo Ball. LaMelo is a senior at Spire Institute in Ohio. He is from California. LaMelo is the most famous high school basketball player ever. He played professionally overseas last year.

Cole Anthony – The son of NBA player Greg Anthony. Cole is a point guard at Oak Hill Academy in VA. He’s from NYC and is regarded as the best point guard in the country.

Jalen Lecque – Senior at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. Jalen is from New York and committed to NC State. He is the most athletic player in the country.

Anthony Edwards – From Georgia and committed to Georgia. Anthony Edwards has bursted onto the seen as a top guard in the nation. He could be the #1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Scottie Lewis – From New Jersey and committed to the University of Florida. Scottie Lewis is super talented and has gotten comparisons to Kobe Bryant.

Aidan Igiehon – Aidan is originally from Ireland. He has become famous for his power game and his nickname “The Irish Hulk”. Aidan is committed to Louisville.

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Channeling Napoleon Dynamite a Success for Blazers All-Star Campaign

A video featuring Blazers guards CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard helped secure Lillard a place in the game and exemplifies the team’s content strategy.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ content team is hoping to extend its connection to the team’s fans with this week’s NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte.

This weekend will provide an opportunity to dive deeper into some Blazers’ lives, including guard Damian Lillard, said Aaron Grossman, the director of content for Portland.

The All-Star campaign started with a video to get Lillard and teammate CJ McCollum voted into the All-Star game. Ultimately, Lillard was voted onto the roster and team captain Lebron James selected him in the All-Star draft.

Grossman said every team seeks a way to creatively promote their players, but it sometimes seems like each team uses the same concepts over and over.

This year, the Blazers sought out a workaround to come up with a different way to promote McCollum and Lillard for the All-Star Game. The pair are good friends in real life and staples on the court in Portland.

READ MORE: How West Virginia’s Digital Team Created a Blueprint for a Heisman Campaign

“They both took to the idea and were very receptive to it from the beginning,” Grossman said. “It didn’t require a lot of back and forth, we presented the concept and during the shoot, they were willing to do things above and beyond what we expected.

“The commitment to their roles and personality really shine through and that’s why it was as successful as it was.”

The video showcased the pair’s friendship and competitiveness as they campaigned for each other to make the All-Star roster, culminating with McCollum dancing like Napoleon Dynamite.

Grossman was happy with the performance and said it was difficult to compare to previous All-Star campaigns as the voting procedures have changed. The video had more than 700,000 views across the Blazers social channels and more than 80,000 engagements.

“Comparing isn’t apples to apples,” he said. “But the views and interpretation of it, the actual commentary and appreciation, was certainly better than in years past.”

The success was in large part because the players were cooperative and wanted to see each other be successful, Grossman said. The content team often tries to showcase the players’ individual personalities and the All-Star campaign video was an extension of the normal strategy. Grossman still credits the players with their commitment to cooperate beyond the normal commitments.

“It was something they could have chosen not to participate in,” Grossman said. “We try to entertain in a unique voice that represents our city and team. The All-Star is a great opportunity to promote for a specific reason and cause.”

The Blazers social team met this week to prepare for the on-the-ground strategy in Charlotte. With two players in North Carolina for the weekend, the team is preparing for a more in-depth look at players lives beyond game day.

READ MORE: How Rakuten Is Leaving Its Mark on Steph Curry’s Underrated Tour

The content team will have three people at the All-Star Game, a social representative, sideline reporter, and videographer. Lillard will be in the main All-Star Game, while Lillard will be joined by teammate Seth Curry in the 3-Point Contest.

Grossman said two players in a single place for multiple days gives the content team the chance to share stories they haven’t been able to in the past. He’s excited to continue the All-Star campaign into this weekend.

A focus of the content will be on Lillard and his interactions with the NBA’s other stars in Charlotte.

“He’s our guy and it demonstrates his place with NBA’s greatest players and any of his interactions will be important to capture,” Grossman said. “He’s earned the respect of the best players and coaches and media and anyway we can capture where he stands with his peers is really important to showcase the player he’s become.”

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Bleacher Report Is Focused on the Second Generation of Social Media

As consumer habits continue to change, the company is looking to take advantage by blending content with experiential and commerce opportunities.

Adam White

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As Bleacher Report gears up for NBA All-Star weekend, the publisher sees itself in a position to take what is digital and make it physical.

This starts with the company’s House of Highlights activation in Charlotte, where there will be everything from a studio and a gaming room, to a basketball gym and live video programming.

The first large-scale activation of its kind for the sub-brand, the opportunity comes at a time when Howard Mittman, CRO and CMO of Bleacher Report sees a shifting landscape when it comes to the digital media space that he wants to make sure they take advantage of.

“This activation is based on this sentiment that I’ve been increasingly more interested in when it comes to how we take things from the digital world and create experiences in the physical world.”

Last’s year’s activation at the All-Star game in L.A. was the first example of this shift and one that started what has become a multistep process of rolling out B/R’s experience practice and their series of live events.

While the goal is to take the digital and make it physical, they will also be taking the physical and making it digital.

“What we are essentially doing is building out this enormous footprint to serve as a physical set that we are using to just capture social content,” said Mittman talking about what their content strategy looked like over the course of the weekend. “Although we expect more than 4,000 people to show up over the course of the day, we are focused on how we can use the space to create content that will manifest itself online to our 40 million or so social followers.”

READ MORE: GolfPass Could Set Standard in 21st-Century Sports Media

Not only has the live experience side of the business powered content, but it has also helped when it comes to partnerships with brands like Intel, Ruffles, McDonald’s and more.

No longer just trying to sell digital assets, they are able to bring what Mittman calls a “holistic set of solutions” to the table for partners.

In just a few years, they’ve been able to change the conversation from trying to pitch partners to finding solutions for partners.

“We find ourselves in the position now where we’re going to ask them (partners) what their challenges are, what their needs are, and then almost reverse engineer from where it is that they want to get to at the end of the campaign,” added Mittman. “This allows us to pick and pull the different aspects or elements from inside our arsenal that work for them or that they’re interested in.”

It’s this process that has allowed the company to more than double the revenue for just its All-Star activation alone.

Along with the House of Highlights presence, the company will also be showcasing its new World Tour line, of which it just recently dropped the first collaboration of the line with Dwyane Wade.

Mittman declined to say how many units the collaboration had sold, but added some color saying that it “blew up” and that between this collaboration and others they have run with The Roots, 21 Savage, and Vin Staples has created an “interesting mix of content and commerce” for the brand.

With content powering the engine, Bleacher Report and Mittman, in particular, see commerce as an additional revenue opportunity that allows them to not only provide athletes with a whole new way to create buzz, but also gives the publisher a whole new content experience.

“A traditional content experience allows you to capture content and sell against it. This allows us to capture content, sell ads against that, and then share in the revenue opportunities with the athlete or celebrity.”

Mittman believes that this type of opportunity will change how athletes approach some of their marketing and press opportunities.

“If you’re an A-list celebrity or athlete and you’re doing a press tour, do you want to do a magazine shoot where they don’t pay you or do you want to do a content and commerce shoot where you have more exposure and have the opportunity to monetize it.”

This has caught the eye of others too. Mentioning that he received multiple emails from groups outside looking to sell the merch alongside B/R inside their activation, becoming some evolution of a DTC company isn’t out of the question.

“If we can start to be known as a shop that is able to offer DTC connections and consumer experiences not just with the content we make but with the commerce we can drive, I have a sense that it will probably start to evolve out into an entirely different category of business relative to what a traditional sports and commerce experience looks like.”

As more of these opportunities pop up, they become reasons in which consumers either have to get the B/R app, experience it, and even purchase in the app.

READ MORE: Bleacher Report’s New Revenue Streams Showcase Publishers Capabilities Beyond Its Digital Walls

And while Mittman is bullish on the experiences and the commerce revenue opportunities, the platform remains B/R’s biggest focus thanks to what they feel can be the gateway to the second generation of social media.

“For us, the biggest bet we are making is that the first generation of social media was about connecting you to the world and that the second generation is about connecting you to your world. That’s what we are trying to do. We are not going to be Facebook, we do not want to compete with them, but we do firmly believe that we have the chance to create a more niche-based platform for people who love sports and crave it in different forms.”

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