The Players' Tribune Is an Online Juggernaut. She's the Secret Force Behind It

Jaymee Messler's sports management firm represented Derek Jeter until
the baseball superstar retired. Then the duo hatched their own sports
media company.

Jaymee Messler worked her way up from being an assistant in the
fast-talking, male-dominated world of sports management to becoming the
secret weapon behind Derek Jeter's media platform, the Players' Tribune.
After she'd spent 12 years at Excel Sports Management--where she and
the Yankees star, a client, found each other--the two teamed up to hatch
the platform, which is dedicated to publishing first-person stories by
athletes. Says Jeter of his partner: "A lot of people said starting a
new media company was a crazy idea, and many thought we would fail.
Jaymee is a true entrepreneur. She is someone who believes strongly in
her vision and has pursued it fearlessly." Since the Tribune's founding
in 2014, Messler--one of Inc.'s Female Founders 100--has raised $58
million for the New York City-based upstart, and now has set her sights
on expanding into podcasts, TV, and feature films. --As told to Yasmin

I was always into sports. I have a twin brother, and playing sports was
how we connected. When I was in college, I heard about this sports
agency in Virginia called Octagon, which was interesting to me, but my
first job after I graduated was actually working for a famous chef at
the Watergate Hotel. It was before the Food Network was around, and I
was able to start building a brand for this two-star Michelin chef who
had this huge personality. I started out as an assistant, but I got
really into the branding aspect and built a role for myself. I would go
around the country with him, helping to plan cooking demonstrations.

Someone introduced me to this tennis agent, Jeff Schwartz, who worked at
[talent agency] IMG. He represented Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis,
and I interviewed to be his assistant. I was obsessed with getting that
job, and I was aggressive about getting it. I hand-delivered a thank-you
note the next day. I stayed with Jeff for 19 years, eventually becoming
the chief marketing officer of Excel Sports, the agency we built

In the sports world, especially back then, there weren't a lot of women
in decision-making positions. I created the roles I had for myself,
finding the intersection of management and marketing. There were a lot
of challenges in a really male environment: Everyone thought I was the
assistant, all the time, unless someone made a specific point to
introduce me with a title. My title was so important, because if I
walked in somewhere with an athlete, people would assume I was part of
their entourage.

Especially early in my career, a lot of wives and girlfriends didn't
want me involved with the players. It was a challenge I didn't expect. I
remember a couple of specific instances where I had a meeting with an
athlete and his girlfriend and pitched an incredible campaign and
thought it went so well, and then afterward I was told she didn't want
me doing anything with them.

I always felt I had to prove myself, and go above and beyond to make
sure I was indispensable. But as a result, there was never any balance
for personal life. I felt like if I wasn't there, or I wasn't needed,
things would go wrong.

As a CMO, I saw a need for a platform for athletes to be able to have a
voice and share stories in an authentic way. Derek, having worked in one
of the country's biggest media markets, saw it too. We felt that trust
has eroded between players and reporters, because so many articles are
headline-driven these days, and a lot of athletes I worked with were
wary of sharing their stories with news outlets.

I was ready for something new, and Derek was starting a new chapter. It
felt like the right opportunity for us to launch a company on the heels
of his retirement. We met with a bunch of VCs, and all of them said:
"So, you're telling me that you're building a company that's 100 percent
reliant on athlete contributions? Good luck with that." But then Derek
introduced me to Thomas Tull, who was the chairman of Legendary
Entertainment, and he got the concept right away, because he loves
sports and he knew about content. He was our first investor.

We launched the day after Derek's last game. Every day, we published a
new story: Russell Wilson wrote about domestic violence, Blake Griffin
wrote about working for a racist boss, the next week Danica Patrick
wrote about dating a fellow Nascar driver. The more stories we told, the
more athletes wanted to share their stories.

I recently moved to L.A. to build out the production side of the
company. Right now, we want to be diversifying the way we tell athletes'
stories. We're looking at developing scripted or unscripted video and
audio content. Our revenue growth was 30 percent in 2017, and we're
going to end 2018 with anywhere from 105 to 135 percent growth.

I've learned so much in the past four years about female athletes. Some
of the problems that exist for them stem from the fact that they don't
have as much visibility. I want to tell those stories: If you're
connecting to these players, more people are going to want to watch
them. If more people watch them, their salaries will get higher.

Being inclusive and being diverse is a huge priority for the platform in
general. It's a challenge, because when you're growing--we started with
30 employees and now have more than 100--you feel a sense of urgency to
hire certain positions, but you want to be thoughtful about whom you
hire. Now, I try to be a mentor to other women: We always say, "How do
we send the elevator down?"

I think there are a lot more women now in decision-making roles in
sports. You're even seeing more women on the field, like Becky Hammon,
who's on the bench with the Spurs, and then the Mavericks just hired
their first female assistant coach, Jenny Boucek.

Very early on in my career, I represented a tennis player who would only
wear Adidas on the court, even though she was signed to another shoe
brand. The night before Wimbledon, I had to get a pair of Adidas shoes
couriered to me and literally paint over the Adidas stripes so no one
could tell. The young female assistant who sent me the shoes went on to
become the head of a sports league, and we're good friends now.
Sometimes, we get together and we just laugh. I mean, look where we came

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