It was just over five years ago that tennis star Andre Agassi published his autobiography "Open." The book is widely regarded as one of the greatest sports memoirs ever. It also shocked many with its honesty on deeply personal topics like Agassi's marriage to Brooke Shields and his experimentation with crystal meth.
Now the experience of writing that book (with the sportswriter J.R. Moehringer) and sharing his stories has prompted Agassi to invest in Unscriptd, an athlete-video site that re-launched last week with proprietary technology allowing athletes to film their own video.
Unscriptd first launched in 2013 as a content aggregator that housed sports video clips from across the web, but now its focus is using software to offer fans "an unfiltered view" from athletes, told entirely through videos that show "the real side of athletes, and the real view into their world," according to co-founder and CEO Brent Scrimshaw, former CEO of Western Europe for Nike (NKE).
Scrimshaw launched Unscriptd with another former Nike exec, Ben Crowe, who was the sports apparel giant's international director of sports marketing, and Todd Deacon, a sports researcher in Asia who worked on media campaigns for the likes of Adidas (ADDYY) and Quicksilver. The team has also added as an adviser Andy Wiedlin, the former chief revenue officer at BuzzFeed, a site that knows a thing or two about social video.
Agassi, who was sponsored by Nike during his career, has invested in the company along with his wife, former world No. 1 tennis star Steffi Graf, professional surfer Stephanie Gilmore, track gold medalist Catherine Freeman, and others. Agassi won't say how much he invested, but he appears to be taking the lead role among the group of athlete shareholders. Soccer mega-stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have sat for videos on the site, but are not investors.
Squeezing on to a crowded field
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Finance, Agassi says he is eager for Unscriptd to become known as the "authentic" provider of athlete video. But that won't be easy; the site is far from the only one jockeying for such a reputation.
Unscriptd is entering a crowded space containing upstarts and incumbents. Established sports media companies like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Vice Sports, and our own Yahoo Sports, just to name a few, have all been aggressively pushing video, and often get access to big stars. Then there is LeBron James's athlete-focused video production company, Uninterrupted. (The name may remind you of something else.) Then there is YouTube, the open-platform giant in online video, and the host of new sports-focused networks like Whistle Sports, which has partnerships with individual pro athletes like Jeremy Lin as well as YouTube stars like the men of Dude Perfect.
More than any other competitor, Unscriptd is facing off against The Players' Tribune, the web site launched last year by retired New York Yankees star Derek Jeter, who in his post-baseball career can seemingly do no wrong. The site has a companion radio show on Sirius XM and has already become a place where athletes go to break their own news, circumventing reporters and the traditional press. Kobe Bryant took to the site to announce his retirement.
Agassi says he's not picking a fight with Jeter. He is judicious in his estimation of The Players' Tribune, but he says Unscriptd is different. "We’re not asking anybody to come to a place, we’re bringing it straight to them," he says. "This is video content, it's global, it’s not just one place, it’s more comprehensive. It’s a different deal than what that is." In stressing both the video focus and "authenticity," he may also be referring to one of the biggest criticisms of The Players' Tribune: that personal essays supposedly written by athletes (who are given titles like "senior editor" after they publish) are likely penned by their agents or managers. An athlete on video cannot fake it; fans can see that it's really them.
"I get pitched 100 things a year, probably, minimum, and I turn down the majority of them, 98% of them," says Agassi about business opportunities. "But this was a pitch that overlapped with my history with Nike. And this one resonated because of my own personal experience with storytelling, and recounting my own life and putting it into a literary form. Not to mention the empowerment that you can give athletes to connect with their fans." This is not Agassi's first foray into tech investing; he is also an investor in Square Panda, a learning device that works with the cloud to teach children to read. Education is a cause close to the heart for Agassi, who, with Graf, opened a K-12 charter school in Las Vegas.
Content on the site is free for fans; it gets revenue from advertising partnerships. This, too, helped bring Agassi on board. "I’ve never been a fan of charging for autographs; when I see that it always rankles me," he says. "So this is a way for fans to get to know athletes better and for the athletes to monetize a following, not on the backs of the fans that follow them."
Go to the Unscriptd site and you'll see a stream of video clips shot on location with professional athletes, like Agassi discussing why he often played without underwear, track star Justin Gatlin talking about how he got into the sport, or Ronaldo giving a tour of his house, "MTV Cribs"-style. The clips can be shared easily on social media like Twitter.
But that could prove to be just the problem: Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB) already make it pretty easy for people (professional athlete or otherwise) to upload a video clip from their phone. Last year, Facebook launched Mentions, an exclusive tool for athletes and celebrities to share live video instantly. And this month the site launched Sports Stadium, a feature it hopes fans will use to engage with each other in real-time during a game. So the company is targeting sports fans and sports discussion in multiple new ways. That means Unscriptd will have to carve out a name for itself based on access. It will need to convince athletes they ought to sit for Unscriptd video shoots (it is not an open platform like YouTube; athletes have to get in touch with the company to post video) rather than just post their own "selfie" videos to social platforms.
The double-edged sword of social media
It will help if there are other athletes that feel the same way about social media that Agassi does. The star, who retired from tennis in 2006, has a Twitter account but uses it sparingly (he has tweeted about 1,300 times since 2009) and cautiously. Social media, he says, comes with dangers. "I learned the hard way, growing up in the public eye, what it’s like to say something out of context or irresponsible, and I learned it as a teenager," he says. "I’m glad I didn’t have to learn that in the social media days, because it’s a tool that can do as much damage as it can good. So I try to address every communication with that sort of sensitivity and analysis."
Scrimshaw knows the crowded competitive landscape Unscriptd is entering. One of the platform's challenges, he says, "is just the continued rate of change and rate of evolution. Having said that, we view it as an opportunity. We have a distributed model, which means that our goal is not to drive fans to a new destination and try to ask fans to change their media consumption habits. Instead, our goal is to put the content in front of them on the social media channels they already use." The site is banking big on the staying power of social video, and the involvement of a former BuzzFeed exec is no accident. "We have a lot of respect for how they generate shareable content," he says. "And with the Nike DNA we have in our company, we understand athletes."
Understanding athletes is what fans want to do, too. So the executives and athletes invested in Unscriptd will hope that Agassi's enthusiasm proves contagious to other stars.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.