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The Players' Tribune Is an Online Juggernaut. She's the Secret Force Behind It

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Jaymee Messler's sports management firm represented Derek Jeter until the baseball superstar retired. Then the duo hatched their own sports media company.

Jaymee Messler worked her way up from being an assistant in the fast-talking, male-dominated world of sports management to becoming the secret weapon behind Derek Jeter's media platform, the Players' Tribune. After she'd spent 12 years at Excel Sports Management--where she and the Yankees star, a client, found each other--the two teamed up to hatch the platform, which is dedicated to publishing first-person stories by athletes. Says Jeter of his partner: "A lot of people said starting a new media company was a crazy idea, and many thought we would fail. Jaymee is a true entrepreneur. She is someone who believes strongly in her vision and has pursued it fearlessly." Since the Tribune's founding in 2014, Messler--one of Inc.'s Female Founders 100--has raised $58 million for the New York City-based upstart, and now has set her sights on expanding into podcasts, TV, and feature films. --As told to Yasmin Gagné

I was always into sports. I have a twin brother, and playing sports was how we connected. When I was in college, I heard about this sports agency in Virginia called Octagon, which was interesting to me, but my first job after I graduated was actually working for a famous chef at the Watergate Hotel. It was before the Food Network was around, and I was able to start building a brand for this two-star Michelin chef who had this huge personality. I started out as an assistant, but I got really into the branding aspect and built a role for myself. I would go around the country with him, helping to plan cooking demonstrations.

Someone introduced me to this tennis agent, Jeff Schwartz, who worked at [talent agency] IMG. He represented Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis, and I interviewed to be his assistant. I was obsessed with getting that job, and I was aggressive about getting it. I hand-delivered a thank-you note the next day. I stayed with Jeff for 19 years, eventually becoming the chief marketing officer of Excel Sports, the agency we built together.

In the sports world, especially back then, there weren't a lot of women in decision-making positions. I created the roles I had for myself, finding the intersection of management and marketing. There were a lot of challenges in a really male environment: Everyone thought I was the assistant, all the time, unless someone made a specific point to introduce me with a title. My title was so important, because if I walked in somewhere with an athlete, people would assume I was part of their entourage.

Especially early in my career, a lot of wives and girlfriends didn't want me involved with the players. It was a challenge I didn't expect. I remember a couple of specific instances where I had a meeting with an athlete and his girlfriend and pitched an incredible campaign and thought it went so well, and then afterward I was told she didn't want me doing anything with them.

I always felt I had to prove myself, and go above and beyond to make sure I was indispensable. But as a result, there was never any balance for personal life. I felt like if I wasn't there, or I wasn't needed, things would go wrong.

As a CMO, I saw a need for a platform for athletes to be able to have a voice and share stories in an authentic way. Derek, having worked in one of the country's biggest media markets, saw it too. We felt that trust has eroded between players and reporters, because so many articles are headline-driven these days, and a lot of athletes I worked with were wary of sharing their stories with news outlets.

I was ready for something new, and Derek was starting a new chapter. It felt like the right opportunity for us to launch a company on the heels of his retirement. We met with a bunch of VCs, and all of them said: "So, you're telling me that you're building a company that's 100 percent reliant on athlete contributions? Good luck with that." But then Derek introduced me to Thomas Tull, who was the chairman of Legendary Entertainment, and he got the concept right away, because he loves sports and he knew about content. He was our first investor.

We launched the day after Derek's last game. Every day, we published a new story: Russell Wilson wrote about domestic violence, Blake Griffin wrote about working for a racist boss, the next week Danica Patrick wrote about dating a fellow Nascar driver. The more stories we told, the more athletes wanted to share their stories.

I recently moved to L.A. to build out the production side of the company. Right now, we want to be diversifying the way we tell athletes' stories. We're looking at developing scripted or unscripted video and audio content. Our revenue growth was 30 percent in 2017, and we're going to end 2018 with anywhere from 105 to 135 percent growth.

I've learned so much in the past four years about female athletes. Some of the problems that exist for them stem from the fact that they don't have as much visibility. I want to tell those stories: If you're connecting to these players, more people are going to want to watch them. If more people watch them, their salaries will get higher.

Being inclusive and being diverse is a huge priority for the platform in general. It's a challenge, because when you're growing--we started with 30 employees and now have more than 100--you feel a sense of urgency to hire certain positions, but you want to be thoughtful about whom you hire. Now, I try to be a mentor to other women: We always say, "How do we send the elevator down?"

I think there are a lot more women now in decision-making roles in sports. You're even seeing more women on the field, like Becky Hammon, who's on the bench with the Spurs, and then the Mavericks just hired their first female assistant coach, Jenny Boucek.

Very early on in my career, I represented a tennis player who would only wear Adidas on the court, even though she was signed to another shoe brand. The night before Wimbledon, I had to get a pair of Adidas shoes couriered to me and literally paint over the Adidas stripes so no one could tell. The young female assistant who sent me the shoes went on to become the head of a sports league, and we're good friends now. Sometimes, we get together and we just laugh. I mean, look where we came from!
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