Players’ Tribune co-founder Jaymee Messler, John Wick and Sicario producer Basil Iwanyk and longtime sports and entertainment executive Greg Economou are launching (Co)Laboratory, a Santa Monica-based venture designed to give athletes and sports teams and leagues an infrastructure to create scripted and reality unscripted content in films, TV, streaming, podcast and other platforms, at a time when appetite for sports content is ravenous.
It is also a time when the major Hollywood agencies are leaning heavily into sports dealmaking, with UTA just making a substantial investment in the powerhouse sports agency Klutch Sports Group, led by its founder and CEO Rich Paul, a move that among other things will create UTA Sports and bring Los Angeles Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis into the agency fold.
Called (Co)Lab Studios, the venture is actively signing up athletes and teams, and will provide development funding and connect athletes to content creating actors, directors, producers and writers. The goal is to develop high-end storytelling IP opportunities, and help in the creative development and financing. The principals said they have already made deals with more than a dozen top athletes, and more with teams and leagues that they weren’t ready to reveal. They already have 20 or so sports projects in early development, they said. The plan is to buy an ownership stake in a major podcasting platform, but otherwise they will be agnostic and deal with all studios and agencies to match their jock clients with creatives and distribution platforms.
This comes at a moment when more athletes seek to broaden into the entertainment space, as a plethora of outlets clamor for inspirational sports content. LeBron James continues to develop his film and TV slate; Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman just released on Showtime his injury rehab docu, and just yesterday, retired Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson teamed with their wives, Gabrielle Union and Ciara, to set up Relentless, a film about NFL kick returner Vernon Turner.
While some athletes have been successful in the space, many others have found it daunting to infiltrate the content game, either because the athletes are consumed with their day jobs and don’t have the time to match their ambition, or because they find it difficult to get projects with the right producers, writers and directors, or because they don’t want to spend their own money. The (Co)Lab principals believe they have the financial resources, and the contacts that bridge both worlds, to steer athletes and teams past development hell.
“These are two of the most insular, closed off and skeptical businesses in the world, when you are talking about athletes and people in the film and television businesses,” said Iwanyk, the former Warner Bros exec who continues to run his Thunder Road label and most recently produced John Wick 3, Hotel Mumbai, A Private War and Wind River. All this started when he produced a documentary about how his favorite New York teams, the Jets, Mets and Knicks, and how they all won championships in 1969. “If you are outside those circles, it is very hard to break in and gain trust. Athletes trust Jaymee because she has been part of their world and because of what she and Derek Jeter accomplished with The Players’ Tribune in giving athletes a forum to tell their own stories.” He said that women’s sports will be a priority.
The principals launch the venture after many meetings with studios, content creators, and teams and athletes. They came away from those meetings believing that connecting the two industries is a real business and the goal is to gain ownership of content, sharing that with the athletes.
“I always feel like you know something isn’t going to work when you feel like you are constantly swimming upstream, but this has been downstream all the way, this feeling like the tide is with us,” Iwanyk said. “People on both sides immediately got what we wanted to do. Athletes have creative ambitions and want to tell their own stories. And I watch the way my own kids consume sports content; they don’t need an arbiter letting them know what’s going on. What I think we cracked the code on is, we’ve all been doing this a long time and have had success and failure, but people trust us. Why should we believe you, why should we trust you? That was something we heard all the time.”
Without naming the player at this point, Iwanyk noted that an NBA star wanted to be involved in a remake of one of his favorite films, but didn’t know how to make it happen. Iwanyk called a vice chairman of the studio that made the original to ask about the rights. “I was told the rights were available, but this and that had to happen,” he said. “Within a week, we had it set up and made a development commitment. We will spend money on contact and create a pathway to get things done. One thing I found in these meetings is that athletes don’t understand why it takes so long to get good ideas made. We understand it enough to be able to help expedite it.”
Messler was long a part of Excel Sports Management, which repped Jeter when he was the star shortstop for the New York Yankees. Jeter, who now runs the Florida Marlins, managed to be one of the most beloved players in New York, enjoying the nightlife befitting a bachelor but never tripping himself up by saying the wrong things to reporters. He and Messler launched The Players’ Tribune the day after Jeter played his last game, to spread his message-controlling philosophy to other athletes. It is far from a vanity venture; players often create news writing about their struggles. Messler left The Players’ Tribune in January to ready the (Co)Lab launch, which isn’t connected with The Players’ Tribune but shares the spirit of permitting athletes a similar level of input in content creation.
“My background is repping athletes and finding disruptive sports storytelling platforms and the combination of both led me to this,” said Messler. “Athletes want to be at the center of storytelling, and there is serious appetite for sports in the entertainment space but most athletes don’t know how to approach it, or have the resources to capitalize these projects. There seemed a gap to be filled where athletes can learn to produce and get connected to relationships like the ones Basil has with creators, directors, writers and studios. There is an unprecedented number of buyers , from the traditional outlets like ESPN, Fox, HBO, Showtime, CBS, NBC, and the new OTT players in streaming has created even more opportunity for athletes attached to stories that bring authenticity the way they did with The Players’ Tribune.
Economou served executive stints at Ticketmaster as head of sports, Guggenheim, the NBA, and the Knicks and Bobcat teams, was on the advisory board of Players’ Tribune and watched that print business flourish. He is overseeing the raising of funds on (Co)Laboratory, and said the venture has raised enough seed money to cover early development funding. The investment banking firm Qualia Legacy Advisors has been retained for a much larger funding raise, to cover production costs. (Co)Laboratory is staffing up with several hires coming.