A New Approach to Branded Content Benefits NFL Players and Partners

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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.

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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.

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“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.