ACE Media CEO: Video Games Are the New Neighborhood Barber Shop For Athletes, Fans, and Brands

Q&A: Scott Langerman on How ACE Media is Evolving With Modern Media

As CEO of one of the world’s fastest growing and most successful new media companies, ACE Media’s Scott Langerman and his team are leading the way for athletes, programmers, publishers, brands and leagues to engage with audiences amidst a rapidly changing media landscape. 

Speaking with Hashtag Sports, Langerman discusses the value of athlete-driven content to a consumer brand’s overall marketing and engagement strategy, why he believes the video game console is this generation’s neighborhood barber shop, and how ACE Media has the ability to access professional athletes across sports at scale to create a steady, year-round stream of branded and creative content opportunities. For clarity, this interview has been condensed and edited.

Although owned by NFL players, the scope of ACE Media’s content initiatives extends beyond football and is designed to access professional athletes at scale across all sports to create a year-round stream of compelling player-centric content projects. Where should athlete-driven content fit into a consumer brand’s broader marketing or consumer engagement funnel in 2019?

The short answer is everywhere. But to back up from that a step, our origin story really is born out of the incredible infrastructure that’s been put in place by the NFLPA over the last 60 years, all for the purpose of supporting its player members. For the first several decades the bulk of that support was dedicated to traditional union matters, but for the last 25 of those years its been supplemented by a fully-dedicated commercial arm – NFL Players, Inc. – that’s built an enormously successful business by leveraging the players’ group licensing rights. When we considered all of that in the context of the content revolution that’s occurred over the last 5-10 years, it felt like the time was right to leverage 60-years worth of player-focused assets and resources for content purposes, to generate the next wave of opportunities for players and partners alike. What we quickly realized is that the scope of that opportunity is bigger than any of us thought.

For years—for generations—there has been enormous untapped value in an athletes’ off-the-field attributes – the strength of their personalities, the depth of their passion, the scope of their interests.  Our job really is to unlock that value and mine it through a range of content initiatives. And if we can accomplish that for NFL players, why wouldn’t the same hold true for baseball players, hockey players, and cricketers?  At the end of the day there are so many individual backstories and interests across the community of professional athletes that I honestly believe there isn’t a genre or platform out there for which we couldn’t develop a compelling piece of athlete-driven content.

Last fall, ACE Media teamed up with Twitch, Epic Games, and Fanatics for “Tuesday Night Fortnite,” a first of its kind series streamed weekly which saw football players and gamers faceoff through Fortnite matches for charity. Can you share more about how this concept came to life and how sponsors were integrated?

There are a lot of things that players do in the normal course of their lives that fans and consumers find interesting, and there are many things that you can point to that are pretty endemic to all athletes—music, food, fitness…and video games. “Tuesday Night Fortnite” was really just an opportunity to shine a spotlight on something an enormous number of athletes were already doing to create interesting ancillary content for fans.

We had a great deal of success with it, and we think video games and esports are an unlimited resource for us, because it’s what [athletes] already like to do.  In everything that we produce, we strive to be authentic and gaming is as authentic and real as it gets. I often refer to the video game console as this generation’s neighborhood barber shop, the platform around which all kinds of conversations and shared experiences are centered. Anybody could get an athlete or a celebrity and pay them to say words that are scripted, but we take a very different approach.

In terms of being integrated, there was significant branding on set and on screen, and I don’t want to speak for Fanatics, but they’re really about fans—part of their mantra is athletes are fans too. In this case, athletes love video games, especially Fortnite. We have 2,000 active NFL players and we believe there’s a content opportunity for every one of them; the fun is figuring out where the right fit is. And I would say the same thing for brands—for every brand problem there’s an athlete-driven content solution.  

How do projects like Tuesday Night Fortnite help to set a new benchmark for fan engagement?

The relationship between fans and all celebrities—athletes, specifically—has changed dramatically for this generation, certainly over the last five to ten years, whether that’s been through the advent of social media, fantasy sports or other factors. The dialogue within sports content was historically “expert to fan”—a color commentator or studio personality was put on the screen to tell me about my favorite teams or players. There’s clearly value in that, but fan’s expectations have shifted to something that looks more like a peer-to-peer relationship. They want to feel like these athletes are relatable, and the truth is, they are.

Every athlete wants to be the best at what they do, and they spend a disproportionate amount of time, energy, and focus doing that, but at the end of the day, they also come home and scratch their dog behind the ears, pick up a guitar, or whatever else they might do when they’re not at their day job – just like all of us. There’s a different expectation among fans at this point, and there are previously unseen sides of athletes and celebrities they want to get to know better.

How is the success of branded content measured in 2019? Are there any engagement metrics that ACE Media can point to as examples that showcase recent marks of success?

Branded content, like any other initiative, will ultimately be judged by whether it helped move the needle on the bottom line. Did it generate sales? Did it generate business? There are a lot of things that go into that. Part of that is a brand perception—perceived value or brand equity that companies are trying to build. There’s also associative value—that’s important so a brand can really leverage the following and the fandom that athletes and celebrities bring with them.

What emerging trend or technology do you believe will revolutionize branded content in the next three to five years?

I think we’re in the middle of that trend already. With how consumers are getting content, and how they’re interacting with celebrities, athletes, and shifting to streaming services, the historic 30-second television spot becomes less and less valuable. I think brands have already started to—and will do so in a much bigger way—look for other ways to deliver their message. Branded content is a really powerful way to do that right now.

A new breed of fan has emerged with habits and interests that are multiplatform & multicultural. How has the “connected fan” altered the way athletes think about personal brand building?

It is all about the shifting dynamic between fans and athletes, and specifically what fans’ expectations are of athletes. I think it’s a product of a lot of evolving trends, and a lot of new services, and technology, and opportunities that have shifted the paradigm. We have had leagues and federations show us research that tells them that affinities are more with the athletes than with the teams and the leagues. That’s a change from a generation ago. The cliché used to be “I follow the jersey” or “I root for the jersey.” I don’t think that’s really the case anymore. There’s a much different connection between athletes and fans because there’s so much more access and availability.

Many athletes have audience reach on social media that rivals TV networks and subscription services in size and especially engagement. How should athletes think about their channel’s “programming” in the same way a media company might?

Athletes should be precise, thoughtful, and strategic about their programming—and recognize that there’s immense value in it. One of the things that we’re trying to change in the athlete mindset is that historically athletes have quite honestly just given content away. Even if it’s in the form of something as simple and ingrained as the postgame locker room interview, there’s real value to that so I think they need to be very thoughtful about the brand and media company that they really sit on top of.

To their everlasting credit, athletes are getting smarter and smarter about it. If somebody is commercializing their business on the strength of an athlete, whether it’s his/her on or off the field presence, the athlete deserves to participate. We’re trying to help that along.

Modern athletes seem most interested in showcasing their off-the-field passions and personalities through content that goes well beyond stats and highlights. With athlete passion points ranging widely, how does ACE Media go about developing content that is truly unique to each individual in a way that is scalable?

We come to the same conclusion from two different starting points. One thing that we do a great deal of is understanding who the athletes are, and keeping a literal and figurative database of information to support that. If you said “I need five athletes who were born in California, like Bruce Springsteen, and own a “Yellow Lab,” we could probably figure out how to deliver on that.

One aspect of what we do starts there. When we understand that this athlete or group of athletes has a particular passion, and we think or have seen that that passion has a market, we’ll try to develop it with that athlete or a group of athletes. We know guys who like food, music, real estate, fashion, you name it; so we identify those passions and try to build stories for partners around that.

Conversely, arriving at the same place, we’re out in the marketplace talking to brands and to networks about what they’re looking for. For example, we might get a network saying, “Hey audiences are really eating up cooking competitions. Do you have 10 athletes who really like to cook?”  We’ll dive into our database of knowledge and see who’s a good fit based on that and a number of other criteria. We’re all about identifying those passions and creating the right fit.

What’s the best or most interesting piece of creative feedback you’ve heard from an athlete working in a production capacity?

That athletes just want to be at the table from a creative standpoint —they have a lot to say and a lot of ideas, and they just want to know those ideas are being heard. You hear from most athletes that they don’t want somebody else to define who they are, which usually comes from a third party driving the conversation rather than the athletes themselves. The biggest and most consistent request that we get is just to be part of that conversation and to help shape what the story is rather than being asked to just to be a character in someone else’s story. I think part of why we succeed in what we do is because we have a different level of trust with players. We literally work for them, so we’re going to be a reflection of what they want to accomplish. That doesn’t mean that it’s always fluff and positive, by the way – it just means that whatever the story is, it’s told in an athletes voice and from his or her perspective.

Most athletes that we work with are very engaged. Take the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. Those players are incredibly thoughtful in everything that we do with them. They give notes on things that we put together. They pose questions. They give us storylines and write treatments. Most of all, they’re thoroughly engaged in what we’re doing because they know how important this moment in time is, and they want to make sure the stories that are being told are the right ones.

Learn more about how athlete-driven content is capturing the attention of the engaged fan at Hashtag Sports, an annual conference designed for media and marketing executives engaging the next generation of sports fans and consumers.