'The Real Deal': Inside NFL's Richard Sherman's Samsung-Backed Series on Players' Tribune

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Credit: The Players' Tribune

NFL star Richard Sherman is not a big fan of traditional sports media. "It's more of a TMZ-style, controversy-filled kinda deal," says the outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback. Starting this week, he'll have a corporate backer helping him bypass regular beat reporters when Samsung sponsors his new series on The Players' Tribune.

The three-year-old site founded by Derek Jeter specializes in first-person accounts from athletes. The name of Sherman's new series, "OUT OF CONTEXT," is a not-so-subtle dig at traditional sports publications, which Sherman says are sensationalistic to a fault. "I think a lot of items in the traditional media nowadays, it's click bait," he tells Ad Age. "It's people that are fighting to be the first to break a story regardless of how true it is or how accurate it is or how damaging it is to someone's reputation or character."

With its athlete-first mentality, The Players' Tribune has exhibited surprising staying power in the competitive sports media world since first publishing in October of 2014 amid some skepticism. The site's average monthly unique viewing audience year-to-date through July was 2.2 million, down slightly from 2.3 million last year, according to ComScore. In July, it ranked 40th in the sports media category, just above the L.A. Times' sports coverage, according to ComScore. The Players' Tribune, citing a "distributed content model" that includes audience on its site and social and syndicated channels, says its page and video views are up more than 100% compared with 2016.

To keep its edge, The Players' Tribune is investing more in video content thanks in part to $40 million in Series C financing it lured in January. Written content is still "the heart and soul of our site," says Players' Tribune president Jaymee Messler. But "we are giving athletes the tools to be able to their stories in a variety of ways." More than 1,500 athletes have contributed to the site.

As part of its new sponsorship deal, Samsung is equipping Sherman's home and car with Galaxy S8 and Note 8 devices. He will use them to record spur-of-the-moment observations. The Players' Tribune will edit and produce the content, publishing posts at least once a week on the site and on Sherman's social channels during the season. In a trailer (below) Sherman shows off his at-home filming set-up, while teasing "authentic" content that is "the real deal." He is credited as the executive producer of the series.

Sherman's involvement with the site is not new. Last season he starred in a weekly video and written content series called "Tuesdays with Richard on Thursdays" that included a look at his life on and off the field. He also took on Donald Trump, calling him in one post "an example of somebody we don't want our kids to talk like or emulate." (Sherman, however, apparently does share with Trump a healthy disdain of the mainstream media.)

Samsung's backing gives his new series a dedicated sponsor, and presumably, more financial stability for the site. But any time a sponsor is involved, it raises the risk that content deemed too controversial is muted.

Still, Messler and Sherman are adamant that Samsung will not get editorial control. "I think they understand who I am and what I am about," Sherman says. "Obviously, I am going to be filtered to some degree. Ya know, I never say anything that terrible, or cursing or anything. But in terms of my opinions and sometimes controversial nature, I don't think they are at all concerned. They seem excited about it." Samsung executives were not available for interviews about the deal.

The Players' Tribune does not pay players for their editorial contributions, Messler says. But sponsored content, such as Sherman's new series, operates under a different model in which contributing athletes can collect payment. "If we make money, then the athletes will make money," she says. She declined to disclose the terms of Sherman's deal.

Sherman recently made headlines for his views on how NFL owners are treating Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback last year began the movement of players protesting the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice in the U.S. Kaepernick still doesn't have a contract with an NFL team, a fact that Sherman bemoaned in a recent interview with USA Today. "There are [accused] rapists and drunk drivers in the league. But he's somebody who didn't do anything to anybody. But you hear owners say, 'We have to ask our fan base first, " he told the publication.

"If he had not protested or done anything like that, he would be signed to a team right now," he said in the Ad Age interview on Tuesday.

The national anthem protests, which have continued into this season, are among the issues he might tackle in the series, he says. "I'll get into other social issues I feel inclined to speak on. Anything that comes up during the season," he says. "If my son develops a [basketball] jumper, I'll get into that," he adds, laughing.

Sherman last year had what Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins referred to as an adversarial relationship with reporters, although Calkins in an August column observed that the player had hit a "reset button" with the press.

Sherman told Ad Age that "there are some great journalists out there that I'd love to continue to work with. But I do see a day where more and more athletes go away from that because of the way they have been treated." For better or worse, sites like The Players' Tribune, along with social media, make avoiding the media a more viable option than it once was.

Still, Messler says the site -- which has scored its fair share of scoops directly from players -- is a complement to traditional media. "We are not looking to replace it," she says. "We are not doing scores and stats. We are covering a lot of the stories that are not necessarily being covered by mainstream traditional media." For athletes, she says, the site is "almost taking their own social media to the next level."

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