The first-person sports website points the way to a brand-led publishing model in Australia.
Busted bones and bruised egos feature heavily in the story of Australian sports publishing. Although Australians love their sport, this country has produced precious few consistently successful general sporting magazines, newspapers or broadcasts. Only those publications or shows devoted to one sport – such as AFL Record, Rugby League Week and The Footy Show – have enjoyed prosperity stretching over many seasons.
An exception during the racy 1990s was Inside Sport*, which featured the best sports journalism of its time (although most people remember it for the bikini models on the cover). At one time, Inside Sport sold more than 80,000 copies a month, was bloated with expensive display ads and had to beat off stiff competition from an Australian version of Sports Illustrated.
What distinguished Inside Sport during its glory phase was its ability to tell great and timely stories that went behind the daily headlines. As well as outstanding writing, it featured amazing portraiture and action images, and sharp art direction. Importantly, it took readers below the surface, beneath the polish, to get a sense of the emotions and motivations that drive Australia’s most interesting sportspeople and sporting teams.
Much of the spirit of Inside Sport lives on in an Australian digital publication called PlayersVoice. Founded by Sydney marketing veteran Kerry McCabe in September 2017, PlayersVoice is a platform for sports stars to speak directly to their fans through first-person stories in both written and video formats.
The stories in PlayersVoice are not traditional “sweat and liniment” tabloid sports features of derring-do; they occasionally reach deeply into a player’s heart and mind. “The PlayersVoice vision is to enrich the soul of Australia’s great obsession – sport – and deepen the connection between sportspeople and fans,” its blurb says. Some of the greats reported to be involved in the project are esteemed former sporting leaders George Gregan, Liz Ellis and Paul Roos.
The PlayersVoice team likes to describe its stories as “writing a real-time chapter in a player’s autobiography”. The idea is reminiscent of what former Major League baseballer Derek Jeter achieves with his US-based site, The Players’ Tribune. What separates these sports sites from similar online titles such as The Roar or ESPN is that they allow players to tell their story in their own voice, rather than having their comments filtered by a journalist or analyst.
The Australian site features an incredible array of champions as ambassadors and “founding contributors”, including surfing’s Sally Fitzgibbons, NRL’s Cameron Smith, cricket’s Pat Cummins, AFL’s Luke Hodge and boxing’s Jeff Horn. According to PlayersVoice, contributors are responsible for their own work, having been “coached” by in-house and freelance writing specialists.
Stories already published cover a range of topics and sports, from netballer April Brandley talking about the pain of losing her mum to cancer at 15 to former cricketer Lisa Sthalekar writing (and speaking on video) about going back to an orphanage in India to “find” her biological parents. The Wallabies’ Israel Folau opens up about his wife and the future and the Crows’ Kyle Hartigan talks about the pain of losing his coach, Phil Walsh.
Matched with great imagery, these sporting tales resonate because they go much further that what you usually see – two-dimensional robots in tracksuits talking in clichés in newspapers or on television.
All PlayersVoice stories feature a “sponsor” – marked “presented by” – with logos signifying an association with the athlete and their sport. Brands also buy space for “sponsored messages”, such as an ad spot featuring footballer Sam Kerr and other stars for Rebel.
PlayersVoice is not a branded content play in the traditional sense. Content sponsors have no say in what goes into the stories, although they get to choose the type of athletes and sports they would most like to align with. It’s more akin to product placement. But what it shows is a different revenue model for publishers in a world that has moved beyond traditional advertising and cover prices.
“We wanted to give athletes a place where they could grow their brand but also talk about things that are important to them in a meaningful way,” says PlayersVoice sales director Adam Ireland.
“That’s where we’re different to most traditional publishers – the athletes are sharing the content.”Adam Ireland
Many sportspeople, he says, have “an increasing distrust” in mainstream media. “If they say something meaningful, it can go up the editorial chain and get cut in half or it doesn’t run, or it turns into clickbait with words twisted or meaning shifted in some way.”
Ireland describes PlayersVoice as a long-form storytelling platform, not just a marketing opportunity. “Everything comes back to [producing] great content,” he says. “The athletes trust us because they actually get sign-off; the audience trusts us because it’s first-person content. It’s rich and raw and sometimes quite emotional.
“Brands trust us as well. We take brand safety very seriously.”
Brands partner with individual stories based on their preferred content themes, he says. “Some partners came onboard as part of our new ‘optimism’ campaign. We aligned their sponsorship with rich storytelling that falls into the theme of ‘uplifting and optimistic’ content.”
Ireland says the players (and their agents) can have a say in which brands they are aligned with. “If we’re working with an athlete and they have an existing relationship with a brand partner, then there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t connect with that partner to align the sponsorship accordingly,” he says. “We do it for brands that invest heavily in the sport and invest heavily in athletes.”
PlayersVoice has a “blacklist algorithm” that ensures the brands sportspeople don’t wish to be associated with (such as gambling products) or those competing with their personal, team or code sponsors won’t appear alongside their article.
Ireland says the site has exceeded the team’s initial audience engagement targets, and recently passed 1 million new users. The associated twice-weekly newsletter to subscribers has also seen healthy take-up numbers, he says.
One of the reasons for PlayersVoice’s fast start is the influencer-style impact the stories gain once they’re promoted on social media. “You tap into the athletes’ social [media] and you’re over 15 million reach,” he says. “That’s where we’re different to most traditional publishers – the athletes are sharing the content. There are even things we didn’t expect to happen … their clubs, coach or other athletes will share it, or the news [services] will pick it up.”
Ireland says there are no plans to change PlayersVoice’s formula of first-person, long-form journalism. “We’ve worked with athletes across all the major codes and have got to the point where they’re reaching out to us to provide great content,” he says. “Part of our editorial challenge is to make sure we keep that standard really high. It’s definitely not a PR opportunity for athletes, where they’re pushing a specific agenda. They must have great stories.”
*Disclosure: The writer was a senior editor at Inside Sport from 1992 to 1997.