Everyone wants to be a media outlet these days, it seems—including celebrities and athletes, many of whom relish the idea of getting around the journalistic middleman to go direct to their fans. That was a big part of the rationale behind The Players’ Tribune, a Derek Jeter-backed site that hosts content written by the athletes themselves, which launched last year.
Unfortunately for the Tribune, being a media entity also involves boring things like having a platform and infrastructure that can support the release of news such as the retirement of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, who also happens to be an investor in the site. When Bryant posted a poem on Sunday announcing his departure from the game, the site went down and was offline for much of the day.
In a way, the site’s downtime was a sign of its success: Instead of the Bryant news breaking via an exclusive interview on SportsCenter or some other traditional forum, it was only available on The Players’ Tribune. That’s a significant reversal in the traditional balance of power between athletes and the mainstream news media, and the site has done it with other news as well.
The Tribune has raised about $15 million in venture financing from investors, including a number of athletes such as Bryant.
Exactly what caused the Tribune site’s downtime is unknown. Most large online-media outlets—particularly those who publish a lot of bandwidth-intensive video—use third-party content-delivery networks or CDNs such as Akamai or CloudFlare that take care of managing the load caused by a surge of web traffic.
It’s not clear whether The Players’ Tribune uses these methods, or whether Bryant’s retirement news was simply too massive for the site and its partners to handle (I’ve reached out to the Tribune for comment and will update this post if and when I get a response).
Some saw the site crash as a sign that the Tribune shouldn’t be running its own site at all, but should instead be publishing on another more robust site such as Medium, the publisher/platform founded by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams. Venture investor Chris Sacca mentioned this on Sunday during the outage at the Tribune, saying the site should just host its content on Medium, the way some other online publications do (Sacca’s firm is an investor in Medium).
A marriage of the Tribune and Medium would make sense for more reasons than just technical ones related to keeping a site up and running. In a way, both are designed to do the same thing: Give those who don’t normally have access to publishing tools and a media platform the ability to tell their story or get out their message. The Tribune’s target clients are athletes, while Medium has tried to have broader appeal.
Medium is aimed at anyone who wants a publishing platform but either doesn’t have the time or knowledge to set one up themselves, and the site has hosted commentary from a wide range of celebrities including President Barack Obama. But its core user base often seems to be startup CEOs and the founders of technology companies, perhaps in part because of Williams’ background. Tech insiders like to joke about how a startup hasn’t really gone under until its founder or CEO writes about their experience on Medium.
The site has come under fire for hosting warmed-over press releases disguised as first-person commentary. Coincidentally enough, The Players’ Tribune has also been criticized by some in the sports-media industry for doing the same thing: Namely, giving athletes and teams a platform for their viewpoint that amounts to little more than a PR offensive. Many sports writers scoff either privately or publicly at the idea that the athletes actually write the content on the Tribune themselves.
It’s not surprising that some in the media would see the Tribune as a threat, just as players and teams using social media to tell their own stories is a threat. Is this PR or just a leveling of the playing field?
How you answer that question depends on which side of the business you’re on, but there’s no question that the phenomenon is continuing to disrupt the somewhat clubby world of sports reporting—something Sports Illustrated wrote about recently in its own publication The Cauldron, which coincidentally enough happens to be hosted on Medium.