How the NFL’s labor union wants to give athletes greater media control

Middlemen everywhere are feeling the heat as brands and content creators go directly to audiences. Athletes, brands themselves, are no different.

The NFL Players Association is embarking on an effort to take back control over its members’ media value through ACE (Athlete Content & Entertainment) Media. The company has one goal: to create content opportunities for NFL players across platforms and forms of media, including online video, TV, radio, games, podcasts and apps. The reason is clear. Sports players see their likenesses used in lucrative ways by their leagues beyond simply broadcasting games.

“The players have been asking for this,” said Scott Langerman, CEO of ACE Media, on working with the union to launch the company. “When we were developing this concept, the group that was most excited about it were the players. They were telling us about how they often can’t control their message — the personality that is put out there as their public persona is not necessarily the one they think is accurate, or it may not tell the whole story.”

The idea, then, is to provide ways for players to tell the stories that the mainstream sports media isn’t telling. The concept evokes the mission stated by Derek Jeter’s The Players’ Tribune, which wants to provide athletes with a platform to communicate directly with fans.

“There are lots of outlets that cover sports and do it really well,” said Langerman. “But we’re not interested in just being another place where an expert gives an opinion. We would rather put the player up front.”

ACE Media isn’t a platform, though. It’s a production company that wants to develop projects across genres by partnering with different producers, media companies and brands.

And it already has a few projects in development. With Bleacher Report, it’s shooting a Web series called “Take It to the House” in which players give a tour of their homes. For BET, it has started production on a series that follows various NFL players as they return to their childhood neighborhoods. (ACE will also be doing a special edition of BET’s flagship show “106 & Park” during next year’s Super Bowl.) Other media and brand partners include Time Inc.’s sports video network 120 Sports, The Players’ Tribune and Nike.

One interesting partnership is with Tongal, a social media platform that connects filmmakers with brands and media companies. Tongal hopes to help ACE Media and players create more local content. This could be a boon for players with lower profiles.

“When you’re Peyton Manning, everything comes to you,” said Tongal co-founder and president James DeJulio. “But if you’re the starting right tackle for the Texans, you’re not exactly getting courted by Papa John’s.”

Tongal has more than a 100,000 creatives embedded in different cities across the country and has done work with local businesses as well as major brands such as Lenovo, Anheuser-Busch, Mattel and Johnson & Johnson. The company is already having conversations with multiple brands, ranging from “music businesses to computer businesses,” for ACE, said DeJulio.

ACE Media is starting with the NFL, which has more than 1,800 active players, but eventually plans to expand to other leagues. (The NFLPA will retain majority ownership of the company.)

“We’re already having conversations with other players associations,” said Langerman, “and we already have requests from some of our partners to take some of our concepts and extend them to other sports.”

That said, the company first wants to make its model work with one league and one group of players. In the near future, this means hiring a “handful” of people in different areas of expertise, including production, player representation, distribution and brands.

“We want to, as a business, make sure we have our legs underneath us before we go out to other sports in a meaningful way,” said Langerman. “The conversations [we’re having] will help dictate the direction we grow in.”

Image via Alexey Stiop /

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