When asked recently whether she’d be willing to make her entire life available for public consumption—the sports version of The Truman Show—the longtime WNBA and Olympic star Sue Bird was ready to give the green light.
“I'm generally a pretty private person,” Bird said. “I don't go out of my way to be but I think it's just a part of my shyness. Ironically, though, I'd be open to this. My No. 1 reason would be that the general public has no idea what a female athlete's life is like. They think they do but it's mostly based on false generalizations. I think it would be a unique opportunity to show the truth.”
But then Bird gave the question some additional thought.
“When you think of platforms like Facebook Live, Periscope, Snapchat, etc., we are basically one step away from it already,” she wrote, via email. “Not to mention the athletes who have already done reality shows. The question that will present itself is: Who will be willing to show it all? Because obviously with social media, you have control. That's a tough ask. I mean, I saw the movie EdTV so I think I'm going to have to change my initial answer to 'No, thanks.' LOL, I don't think I could do it.”
But would other athletes take the plunge? There is nothing to prevent Bird or any other professional athlete in 2017 from starring in a financially-successful 24/7 livestream if she or he had the right distribution platforms and content. We live in an age where endless individuals and organizations use live streaming to broadcast both the mundane and extraordinary. What is there to prevent an athlete from live streaming himself or herself 24/7 and figuring out a price point for it?
Based on my research, nothing.
“All of it is very possible and may just need that one key pioneering figure willing to Truman it up online,” said Lee Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, a sports media consulting firm. “The arrival of a new name-brand sports property, a superstar that we’ll call LeBrady James, who intentionally wants to exclusively offer up a glamorous, championship- and celebrity-filled life on a 24/7 basis, would be of interest to a number of media companies, particularly those utilizing apps to drive distribution across a range of screens.
"They would have the interest and ability to distribute and profit from LeBrady’s content on flatscreens, laptops, tablets and phones. So, if LeBrady would be willing to offer up an app featuring a 24/7 livestream, short-form daily highlights, documentaries, workouts, celebrity events and so on, app-based media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, Amazon, YouTube and Sony could all be interested, particularly if they were also involved with LeBrady’s sport. Moreover, a number of LeBrady’s key sponsors would want to be involved.”
What would be the logistics behind something like this? For that, I contacted Rick Cordella, the executive vice president and general manager of digital media for the NBC Sports Group. Cordella is responsible for all aspects of NBC Sports Group Digital, and is one of the thought leaders in the sports space.
Cordella said the enterprise would have to focus on two parts to be successful—editorial logistics and technical logistics. On the editorial side, if dealing with an athlete in a team sport, all practices, pregame, postgame and the game itself would be off limits given they are team-controlled. For an athlete such as a golfer, tennis player or Olympian, Cordella said things would be a little easier but you would still have issues around competition windows and television rights.
“Then you probably get into issues around the other athletes, coaches, friends, relatives not wanting to be filmed even in social situations,” Cordella said. “You'd have to do a thorough vetting of privacy laws. I remember a story about the Manny Ramirez signing in Boston where ESPN’s Outside The Lines did some fly-on-the-wall coverage. They showed a [Yankees GM] Brian Cashman phone conversation with Ramirez's agent, Jeff Moorad, that the Yankees felt was unfair and unethical—and even illegal in some states (though N.Y. was not one of them).”
As for as the technical logistics, Cordella said you would need high-end and dependable Wi-Fi or cell coverage to be able to live stream at all times. One issue clearly would be air travel given there is not always enough bandwidth to support live streaming video on a plane. There are also geographic pockets of the U.S. where cell service isn’t strong enough. Cordella said capturing audio could be a problem if the people in the athletes’ orbit are not close enough to a microphone.
“I think you have two choices: Go the reality TV route with a full set of multiple cameras, producers, graphics, etc ... or go low-budget and have someone follow the athlete around with an iPhone,” Cordella said. “The first, as a live production, is prohibitively expensive. The second could be nauseating for the viewer as the camera shakes around. And you have the audio problems I previously mentioned. You also have to decide how you monetize this stream if that is a consideration. You could use Facebook Live, Periscope or YouTube, but you’d be stuck with their business models which in some cases are non-existent and other cases requires a significant revenue share. You could go direct to consumer and charge a fee for access, but I don't think you'd get enough subscribers. You could pay the tech costs to stream it and integrate brands (branded content), but I don't believe you’d cover your technical and production expenses.
“Certainly, there is a curiosity and novelty factor to it,” Cordella continued. “But I'm not sure the reality of a pro athlete’s life matches what the fan expects to see. It very well may be more routine and mundane, and the athletes carefully cultivate these public personas. I don't believe it's going to benefit the athlete to show how he/she is on his/her worst day. No human would want to be judged by one bad moment, and luckily most people don't see it. But with a 24/7 stream, that would be the clip that goes viral. An expertly edited Video On Demand show, with high production values, would do tremendously well (e.g. Cribs on MTV or Hard Knocks), but anything live is too risky to the athlete's brand and logistically/technically difficult to pull off for any sustained period of time. For sure it's an interesting idea, though.”
I wondered how many athletes would take the plunge, especially if the dollar figures were lucrative.
“It's an interesting concept for sure,” said Andy Roddick, the Hall of Fame tennis player who has worked in the sports media for the BBC and FS1, among other entities. “I personally would want no part of it. In the most honest sense, I think athletes would lose the ability to curate their images. Also, you'd have to see how it manifested itself in the self-preservation of people around them ... For example, if a publicist is giving advice in front of a live-streaming audience, they're instantly opened up to the type of criticisms that the athlete faces. If they openly talk about appealing to a certain demographic, depending on how that conversation went, a lot of Twitter warriors would come running in.”
“I'd imagine lots of NFLers would do it for the money,” said Geoff Schwartz, a nine-year NFL offensive lineman who now works in the sports media. “Lots of guys already document life 24/7 for free on Snapchat and Instagram. Money is always a motivating factor for decisions like these. I wouldn't mind live streaming my life between 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., when I'm busy with life and being a dad. Once my kids went down to sleep, I'd want the cameras to leave.”
Said Bird: “Define lucrative? That would be the key factor but assuming it's millions, I would guess that 25% would say they would do it. Then 15% might actually move forward, and 13% would drop out from there if the money wasn't enough. So you'd be left with the type of player that might write a tell-all book.”
Roddick said at a minimum, you would need an athlete with name value to make it interesting. “But I don't think people with the blue chip name value would want to do it,” Roddick said. “Maybe some attention 'thirsty' ones, but that would show itself quickly.”
(Roddick’s wife, the actress and model Brooklyn Decker, passed along that there would be high appeal if the livestream focused on a life that was “an absolute train wreck.”)
One of the fascinating questions would be the pricing for such an idea. Obviously, the higher the profile of the athlete, the more one would charge.
“Theoretically, an app featuring an immensely popular player with a substantial amount of exclusive content could command $4.99 per month,” Burke said. “But to build distribution and sponsorship value, it may work better to price the app at $2.99 to $3.99 per month. As for the app featuring 24/7 coverage of an 'average' professional athlete, everything would be scaled down. You’re probably looking at a regionally-popular athlete, so with a limited audience size, you scale back revenue projections and expenditures and end up with an app priced at around $.99 to $1.99 per month.”
Would there be legal ramifications for an athlete who chooses to make his or her entire life an economic enterprise?
“In general, an athlete would have extensive flexibility within his or her union to live stream their entire life,” said Michael McCann, the legal expert for Sports Illustrated and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute (SELI) at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, where he is also a tenured professor of law. “Players' associations, which are influenced by player agents, like to see new commercial opportunities for their members, especially opportunities that generate revenue/income that needn't be shared with owners. However, pushback from a union might occur if the athlete embarrasses himself or herself in a way that reflects poorly on other players in the union.