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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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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

Meet the #Rising25: Adam Johnson of ISM Raceway

Meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager for ISM Raceway. A 2016 Grand Canyon grad, a talent and passion for storytelling landed him in this year’s class.

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The #Rising25 class of 2019, presented by AB InBev, represents some of the brightest young professionals in the sports industry. Over the next several weeks, we’re proud to introduce you to this year’s winners and highlight some of their achievements to date.

Today, meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager of ISM Raceway.

A 2016 graduate of Grand Canyon University, Johnson began working at ISM Raceway (then known as Phoenix International Raceway) as a volunteer tour leader.  It was in his college days that Johnson saw the possibility of building a career in sports. As a college student, he also gained experience with GCU athletics, the Arizona Rattlers, and the Jerry Colangelo Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic.

“Growing up, my discretionary income would go towards sporting events. Now, I make my income from working behind the scenes at sporting events that I’d love to be attending as a hobby,” Johnson says. “As a kid, I consumed a lot of information about my favorite teams and leagues through the television broadcasts and through social media in high school. I loved the idea of being the person who gives today’s kids that information about their team. Being able to share my passion with the next generation made a lot of sense to me.”

Johnson credits much of his professional development to the education he received as a student and employee at GCU. During his time there, the athletic department transitioned to Division I, which provided an ideal learning environment. Johnson then joined ISM Raceway full-time shortly after graduating from GCU.

In 2017 and 2018, the raceway underwent a $178 million dollar renovation. Some racing fans weren’t thrilled with the idea of a track that had basically remained untouched since 1964 now going through a major change. As part of the digital content team, it was the task of Johnson and his cohorts to win fans over with access to the stadium’s new additions.

“I can confidently say that well over 90% of our fans who had doubts are satisfied with the product now thanks in large part to our storytelling,” he says. “Winning over old fans who were skeptical as well as gaining some new fans for the raceway was my career highlight so far.”

Johnson has already held a number of roles in his short career but says that, irrespective of position, authenticity and having a strong character are essential for success. 

“If people are going to talk about you, make sure that it’s something that you would be proud to hear,” he says. “Be yourself but be cognizant that people are always watching, especially when you work in something like social media.”

Johnson advises those looking to shift their sports careers into the fast lane to take networking seriously and not be intimidated to reach out to others.

“You’d be amazed what can happen if you just reach out and ask someone to coffee,” he says. “That goes a long way because everyone has been in that spot before where they don’t know what their next move is. Take that step out of your comfort zone and ask people if you can pick their brain.”

Meet the full class of 2019 here.

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Inside Locked On Podcast Network’s Quest to Provide Fans with Daily Updates

David Locke started a short-form daily podcast to bolster his job security and now he’s built Locked On Podcast Network across the NBA, NFL and, now, MLB.

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Photo Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2011, and all David Locke wanted was job security.

Locke had just become the Utah Jazz’s radio play-by-play man, replacing longtime announcer Rod Hundley. It was a dream gig but one without much stable footing, so Locke decided he needed a side hustle. It ultimately came by way of launching a short-form daily podcast to further connect with fans and cement his place in the position in the organization.

Eight years later, the plan worked out better than he could have imagined. Locke is still with the Jazz and, in 2016, Locked On formally became an entire podcast network built around daily 15-minute podcasts in the NBA and NFL. This week, it launched an MLB component to deliver further content to an audience that averages more than 5 million listeners a month. Locke believes baseball content is a natural extension of the network’s vision.   

READ MORE: Inside CBS Sports’ Innovative Podcast Strategy

“The natural rhythms of baseball match the network in ability to get a team update in 15 minutes,” Locke said. “I’m a big San Francisco Giants fan, but I haven’t watched a game in forever. I don’t have three hours often, but now I listen to Locked On Giants and I know a lot more about the team all of a sudden from 15 minutes a day.

“In that sense, it has a chance to be really successful.”

Locked On Podcast’s MLB network launched with 20 markets, but Locke expects it to soon scale up to all 30 teams. The goal is to someday rival the network’s success with the NBA, whose aggregate weekly listenership was only once surpassed by its NFL content. “There’s a soap opera element to the NBA,” he said. “It’s as popular or more popular in the offseason.”  

Several polls and studies on podcasts have shown the best format podcasts are shorter, like the 15-minute format Locked On Podcast Network has chosen. The research firm IDG Connect found the ideal time for a podcast is 16 minutes in a study finding users want short, digestible content no matter the format.

Likewise, more Americans are listening to podcasts, as a 2018 Edison Research study found an estimated 48 million Americans listen to podcasts weekly. The same study found podcast awareness among Americans had grown from 46 percent of the total population in 2012 to 64 percent in 2018.

As the network grows to encompass more teams and league, Locke says the next step to improve the network’s content will be to continue to search for high-caliber podcast hosts, the best of whom are often writers already on the respective team’s beat. “There’s no real consistency [in hosts],” Locke said. “Two parts have to happen. They have to care passionately about the team and sport and the ability to deliver daily podcasts. It becomes a bit self-selecting in what we’re asking.

“It brings high-level people naturally by what it is.”

Those hosts aren’t being asked to contribute for free, either. Locke was tight-lipped on his revenue model but said the monetization of his network provides the hosts with a modest payment.

“We’ve had really good revenue growth the past two-and-a-half years, and some of our guys have really successful shows,” he said. “We’ve found a way to bring revenue to all our hosts. We’re really proud of that piece. We’re finding mechanisms to allow podcasts that have not been able to monetize, monetize.”

READ MORE: The Ringer’s ‘Winging It’ Podcast Offers Sneak Peek Into Life in the NBA

Locke’s biggest-picture goal is that Locked On PodcastNetwork can open doors for young talent hoping to make a name for themselves in the media world. He worries radio is providing fewer and fewer avenues, something that he hopes Locked On can both compensate for and, ultimately, benefit from.

“There is a real chance to developing the next age of talent, and not just for other people,” he said. “They can develop and then stay with us and hopefully there’s no reason to leave. I hope that’s something we can be for people.”

The next frontier of growth is already on tap. This fall, Locked On Podcast Network will roll out NCAA teams, an arena the network has dabbled in but never fully committed to. With a format that is scalable to any league, Locke hopes to continue filling fans in with his quick-hit podcast format.

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How Access Has Changed The Conversation Around Digital Storytelling

Athletes share more of their lives than ever before, leaving content creators to grapple with how to deepen the message in the stories they tell.

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Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Athletes are sharing more of themselves than ever before, putting the onus on sports content producers to develop thoughtful stories to better connect with audiences. A South by Southwest panel on storytelling in sports discussed how to cut through the noise as a documentary filmmaker and sports storyteller.

“Athletes now have their own crews, cameras constantly around documenting their own lives,” said Gotham Chopra, co-founder and chief creative officer of Religion of Sports, who is currently finishing up a documentary on Stephen Curry entitled “Stephen vs. the Game. “For us, we try to cut through the clutter. It’s not about the access, not just a commodity, but what am I trying to say? Why are we doing this? Unless there’s clarity around that, I don’t think it’s worth doing.”

When linear television networks ruled the roost, almost any sort of athlete-related access motivated viewers to tune in to see a slice of an unknowable world. Social media opened the floodgates, however. Now that visibility has exploded, and fans can connect directly with athletes, there’s a need to tell bigger, bolder stories.

READ MORE: ‘We Are LAFC’ Shows Off Exclusive Content Opportunity for MLS, ESPN

“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of access,” said Libby Geist, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films & Original Content. “That’s just not enough anymore. There has to be stakes. The bar has to get higher and higher. We need to stay in our lane and not get stars in our eyes. A big name isn’t enough anymore.”

For ESPN, one of the biggest answers has come by way of longform documentaries, most notably its 30 for 30 series. Today, it ranks as one of the network’s most critically acclaimed imprints. But Geist remembers a time, not too long ago, when stakeholders were wary of viewers making time to watch hour-plus-long programming that sometimes strays off the beaten path.

“It was a risk to commission 30, hour-long docs,” she said. “Now we know they can sit for a long time. Not just for sports stories, but director-driven. Not just moments in time, not just a Super Bowl or big game, but much more layered cultural stories.”

The culmination of those efforts came in 2016 with ESPN’s Academy Award-winning, five-part miniseries on O.J. Simpson, “O.J.: Made In America.”

“The conversation around that was a ‘step back moment,’” Geist said. “People were not just talking about sports, the buzz around the level of discussion.”

That buoyed a new wave of production. Not only does ESPN have 15 to 20 new 30 for 30 projects in the works, according to Geist, but many of them are “big tentpole films,” like an upcoming 10-hour Michael Jordan project.

In addition, Geist and ESPN also have another platform to work through and deploy new content on thanks to the introduction of ESPN+. Though still less than a year old, ESPN+ is already paying dividends by providing new avenues to tell stories. Geist used the example of the docuseries, a medium she was once loath to push due to the headache of scheduling against billion-dollar live sports rights on ESPN. Now, though, they can be uploaded and binged at a viewer’s leisure.

The number of media platforms like ESPN+ and the plethora of other streaming services have posed the question to independent filmmakers like Chopra of how to make compelling content and draw in viewers. He said he’d prefer a small audience deeply engaged in the message of the project rather than a larger, passive one.

“The new platforms have really raised the game of accountability,” he said. “How do I invest? Whether [in subscriptions] or time, you have to earn that. It’s pushed us as creators.”

Ultimately, however, access does matter in the sense of finding subjects willing to offer up more substantial parts of themselves. Dexton Deboree, co-founder of Los York Entertainment, credits the NBA, in particular, for being a forerunner among organizations within sports that push a coherent message and let players tell meaningful stories. That encourages storytellers like Deboree to embrace athletes’ narratives as a microcosm of humanity to spur serious discussions and connect with like-minded people. Last year, Deboree released “Unbanned: The Story of AJ1,” which tracked the cultural influence of Air Jordan shoes.

READ MORE: Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

“If I’m not into basketball, but I realize there’s a connection, suddenly, there might be something to that community,” Deboree said of how a personal story can create new fans. “I don’t know that we’re changing minds. We just strive to stir the pot and get people to talk about stuff [that] maybe they weren’t.”

From Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell to today’s athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, athletes have always had the power to spark social dialogue. Chopra recently finished “Shut Up and Dribble” with James, the title taken from a Tweet James received from Fox News personality Laura Ingraham.

“What an amazing time to be alive in this political climate,” Chopra said. “It was conceived from the most popular player in the world literally getting into a social media war with the president of the United States. We went back to the 1950s, and this isn’t new.”

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