Boxer Laila Ali and Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown were honored with Sports Personality of the Year awards at Variety’s Sports Entertainment Breakfast, presented by Mercedes Benz, on Tuesday at Vibiana in downtown Los Angeles.
“She is a woman of many fists, excuse me, of many firsts,” joked former New England Patriots Hall of Famer and sports analyst Willie McGinest, who presented Ali’s award.
“When I first started boxing, people thought I was too pretty to box, so I had to work really hard to be taken seriously. And then when I decided to retire, I was looking for my Cover Girl contract, but was told I was too intimidating, so my team had to strategize how to soften up,” Ali said. “It’s been a long road to get to where I am.”
She’s done a lot of TV hosting since her retirement but said she was most proud of CBS Sports Network’s “We Need to Talk,” an all-female sports commentary show. “I’ve been very fortunate to transition my career to do many things I’m very passionate about,” she said.
Brown was praised by NFL Network’s Eric Weinberger for “carrying himself with great dignity and character.” In just his sixth season with the Steelers, “it’s just the beginning,” Weinberger said, “and he’s turning his attention to how he can give back and build his brand in a positive way off the field.”
Brown, featured in HBO’s “Ballers” and “Celebrity Family Feud,” said he hopes to see himself on the bigscreen one day. “I mean, who can say no to all this right here?” he said to laughs. But before his movie stardom, he assured Steeler Nation that he’ll be helping the team on the quest for the Super Bowl.
Everyone wants to be in business with superstars, said McGinest in a panel discussion following the awards presentation. Just this summer, wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s helped “San Andreas” gross more than $450 million worldwide, while LeBron James delivers a star turn in Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” opening wide Friday. With all of the marketing and entertainment opportunities available, athletes need to focus first on their business on the field.
“We can get into all these other ventures, we can talk about branding, but if you’re not performing on the court, no one cares about your brand,” said Miami Heat All-Star Chris Bosh in a keynote conversation with CAA’s Justin Castillo and Variety‘s Dave McNary. “I try to keep basketball first, and anything else that falls in line is a plus.”
For Bosh, those opportunities have been ample: a guest-starring role on Disney Channel’s “Jessie,” another role as “Tall Justice” in a Funny or Die sketch, a men’s tie line called Mr. Nice Tie, a PSA to encourage kids to learn how to code, and philanthropic ventures with his foundation Team Tomorrow.
Castillo called Bosh “a businessman who just happens to wear a jersey to work and carry a gym bag instead of a briefcase.” He noted Bosh’s work ethic and focus in setting goals for what he wanted to achieve. He also noted, “Chris’ gym bag is Louis Vuitton, but it’s a gym bag.”
McGinest joined producer Mark Ciardi (“McFarland, USA,” “Million Dollar Arm”), Mandalay Sports Media’s Jon Weinbach and NFL Network’s Eric Weinberger in a panel discussion moderated by Variety‘s Brian Lowry.
“Athletes have to be able to build their brand that doesn’t come across as totally self-serving. They have to be a little candid,” Weinbach said. “Peyton Manning is a television star, not because of his good looks, but because he can make fun of himself and play with his image. Those guys can get a lot more public affection and dollars. Companies want that image and they want guys who don’t take themselves so seriously.”
Weinberger said that the NFL Network and the audience look for great stories in their stars. “I want to give them a few years to get in the league and establish themselves, gain the confidence, represent themselves and their league in the right way and follow their story.”
Americans’ appetite for sports news is insatiable, he continued. Even in the offseason, the NFL Network has shows around free agency and the schedule. Social media, he said, has made the insiders and reporting even better and more interesting.
But in the end, as in Hollywood, it comes down to storytellers and storytelling. “Michael Irvin didn’t have social when he was playing, but he was social,” Weinberger said. “I can’t imagine what that Dallas Cowboys team would be like with social media right now, but the players who popped then, they’d be popping just now because they were good content. They were honest content, they had stories to tell.”
A former Major League pitcher, Ciardi admitted he didn’t prepare to become a producer after his life as an athlete. “I had people I knew, I had access,” he said. Although they didn’t set up to be sports film producers, the first movie he and his producing partner got was “The Rookie” and parlayed that momentum into a deal at Disney. “Really, we just tried to find great stories,” he said.
He recently started a new company, Apex Entertainment, and is looking at digital content and unscripted television. “I wanted to get out in front of where the business was going and not be in an older media deal,” he said.