By Zac Cornell
Grit Player Services is a company that offers a trailblazing personalized service for athletes. They describe themselves as “athlete advocates” and their business is to help athletes build their personal brands based on their unique interests and passions. Grit Player works with athletes to shape their social media presence and business development to devise their platform and professional future. The company’s motto is “Give inspiring athletes access to resources they can use to not only identify their next step but take it.” I talked with co-founder David Jaffin to learn more about this groundbreaking niche in sports business and why it is so important for athletes to capitalize on their sports platform early to establish their personal brand for the future.
Zac: Can you please share a little background on your education, internships, work experience?
David: I grew up in Westchester, New York and went to Syracuse University. I studied Sports Management there. I then got a job at VaynerSports which at the time was a pretty small sports agency, but now it is a lot bigger. When I was working there they were involved with just the NFL, now they’ve expanded to e-sports, NFL, MLB, and UFC. Around June of 2020, I left Vayner and started doing my own thing with Grit Player Services as a co-founder.
Zac: You are a co-founder of Grit Player Services, a company that helps athletes with personal brand building through social media. You obviously identified a hole in the services offered to athletes through their agents and managers. Can you talk us through the kind of services you provide and give some examples on how the work you do transforms into value for a client?
David: I’ll give you a real life example – we started working with a client named Xavier Scruggs back in June of 2020 when I started and he played in the MLB and was kind of a journeyman. But he wanted to be on air; he wanted to figure out his life after baseball. When I was working with him he was still technically an active player, but he was flirting with retirement. So he wanted to figure out how to take that next step. So we created an instagram live show for him and gave him the resources of what a BleacherReport or what a NBA on TNT graphic designer would give him. We created graphics, videos, small clips, and long form content behind this show, and ESPN executives saw it and really liked what X was doing and gave him a shot to be on air commenting on JBO (junior baseball) games. X turned that into almost full time broadcasting; he does about one game a week on ESPN – the Sunday night game. He’s currently commentating at the Little League World Series. We also started putting out a lot of DEI content (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and created a pitch for him to be a DEI consultant for the Cardinals. They ended up going with it. And we also created a podcast for him that MLB.com really liked and MLB.com decided to buy it and produce it. We’ve also grown his TikTok to 50,000 followers in a little over six months. So our whole thesis is really “Hey, if you invest in your personal brand, opportunities will come.” And those opportunities aren’t strictly money, but it’s more a job or an introduction to somebody extremely influential that will help you get that job, or more money, or that business. Anything you want to get done … you’re going to need attention, and we help athletes get attention.
Zac: Is this for athletes that are still active in their respective sport or is this for athletes who are trying to pursue another career (post-retirement)?
David: Both. We work with athletes that are currently on the active roster of NFL teams and we also work with athletes who are retired.
Zac: Are you the first company to develop this type of service? How did you come up with the idea?
David: On the record, I don’t know anyone who looks like us. Tom Brady has an amazing production team behind him; they do very similar stuff for him. Julian Edelman has a whole team directed at him. So does LeBron. He has a production team called Springhill. But it’s just for LeBron. To my knowledge, we are the first one to do this for multiple athletes at the level that we are doing it at. Really the need being filled is if you’re not a top athlete like LeBron and you can’t afford your personal production company. Julian Edelman’s team is phenomenal. I’ve spoken to them and I look up to them in a lot of ways. I don’t know if the idea is something we created; however, I don’t know a company like ours who does it for multiple athletes and is trying to give this to as many athletes as possible.
Zac: Is there a story behind the creation of this idea?
David: I think everyone has that aha moment. There is always a story behind a business. The story behind the business is – I was working at the agency and there was a client by the name of Josh Martin who went to Colombia and was currently playing in the NFL (for the Jets), and he really wanted to figure out how to leverage his platform and how to create content. There wasn’t too much direction. He was just like I have an interesting story, I’m an Ivy league football player, and I’m currently in the league. I was doing it for him but then it became almost like a full time job while I was at the agency. So I spoke to my boss and I said “Hey, we need to hire somebody in house for Josh because I can’t do all the work I need to do for the agency to keep it running and be Josh’s social media counselor. He agreed with me and asked me who would be good to hire. And the first person that came to mind was Jake [Miller, the co-founder of Grit]. Jake and I were really good friends, we actually started off as interns together at Vayner. I said Jake would be great and would be willing to take a really low salary for this opportunity. So, Jake started with Josh, and that was client number one for Grit. I think the best ideas you don’t create, you just fall into them.
Zac: How early in an athlete’s career do you suggest they start developing their brand and why is it important for athletes to develop their brand?
David: I think it takes a self-starter to do it. It takes a lot of time and effort. However, I would say as early as you can. I mean, literally in high school, I think, is a good place to start, as you never know when the game is gonna run away from you.
I can call him a friend – he was a colleague of mine at Vayner and his name is Max Brown. Max was the number one pocket passer in the 2013 ESPN U-300. He was a phenomenal quarterback, went to USC, was Mr. Washington ‘Gatorade Player of the Year.’ He had scholarships everywhere. And he didn’t post on social media at all. These are his words really, and I’m just summing them up but he was like, “I didn’t think I needed to post on social media, because that was for the flashy kids, you know? People are going to look back in my archives and dig up the footage, and be like, damn, that’s how he got there.” Unfortunately for Max, it didn’t work out, he got injured. I believe he was behind Cody Kessler his freshman year, then he got this starting gig two-three years behind Kessler and then finally got the starting gig, and then his first game was against ‘Bama, it got blown out. He had a couple other games, then got benched for Sam Darnold, then transferred to Pittsburgh, then blew out – I believe – his shoulder in a game and that was his college career. And, you know, he actually worked in physical media after, and he creates a lot of content now about his failure. He talks about how that happened and his biggest regret is, ‘damn I had such an opportunity to start building my brand early’. He has done a really good job with his content now and it has helped him get college football announcing gigs and plenty of other opportunities. But looking back on it, He’s like, ‘yeah, that’s a huge regret’. He had a huge opportunity and unfortunately it didn’t work out so it’s kind of like insurance, it’s kind of like buying an insurance package. Because, at least if it doesn’t work out you have 300,000 followers that care about you as a human too. When you’re just a football player, like, okay, and then when you stop playing football, you’re kind of giving them a reason to stop caring about you. So, yeah, I would say as early as possible and that’s a real life example.
Zac: If someone started building their brand and then suffered a devastating injury that ended their career, would their followers still follow his brand?
David: Really if you did a good job with it, and the athlete was being vulnerable with his audience about him as a human being, they care about him. It’s not just football highlights – that’s not a way to build a brand. If you just put a logo on a shirt, it’s not gonna work. Why do people want it, why should people care about the logo? So why should people care about the athlete? Is it because he grew up in a certain area? He grew up with, you know, his sister … had, you know, something growing up or like, he has extreme passion for giving back, or has an extreme passion for, even Pokemon, like whatever it is, and then he’ll get people who are Pokemon fans and NFL fans to care about him. They’re still gonna be Pokemon fans after whatever it is, like, everybody on this earth has an interesting story, so if you tell the world about it, then people are gonna care, so I’d say a brand is not sick highlights, but a brand is who they are as human, and their work ethic, and their family, and their interests, and what they do in their free time, like that is the stuff that is not going to run away from you.
Zac: Who are the top clients that you work with?
David: I mean I don’t like saying “top,” because I think all of them are honestly extremely unique. I think they’re all kind of similar, like in a similar spot. I’ll speak about Jared Bell who is one of our clients. He played offensive tackle for 10 yea’rs in the league and now he’s retired. He came out of retirement twice in the last few years, but he wants to build a brand and he wants to build on it, he’s extremely into craft beer – he orders his own beer, and he’s extremely into biohacking as well so we created a podcast for him called The Jared Bell Beer podcast where he talks to people who own craft breweries because one day, Jared wants to open a craft brewery. So, how do you do that, like, grow your audience on social media too with people who are into craft beer? You’re going to understand the market and learn from people in the industry. And then, you know, maybe there’s somebody who gives you money to open it. Maybe you do it yourself, but at least you know now, you have a following that’s around. Here’s a good example. Josh Dobbs is the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. We’ve been helping him with his merch line. Jordan Palmer, quarterback coach for Trevor Lawrence, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Sam Darnold. He is somebody we just started working with. Josh Martin, who I’ve already spoken about. John Solomon – he’s another offensive lineman who we’re talking to, he’s played in the league for 10-11 years and really just talking about his past NFL stories but also really positioning him as the most adventurous man in sports. Kind of like Xavier who is all over ESPN now. There’s Hakeem Valles. Everybody’s got a different story. I’m having trouble saying “most famous” because I think for you, maybe, somebody is going to be more famous but yeah, I was like you might not know Xavier but when we were on the field with him for the Home Run Derby there were little kids coming up to him saying, ‘You’re the guy from TikTok.’ So like, everybody has a different definition of famous and I think each of them are famous in their own right to their own audiences.
Zac: How big do you think this can grow? Do you think most athletes will begin to start using this?
David: We know that this stuff works. And we know it’s important. I think LeBron has really paved the way for us because he’s doing a phenomenal job, like, not only is he the goat, in my opinion, on the field but off the field too, like, the dude runs the show, right. So if he’s setting the standard then I think people are gonna follow. People are only realizing this stuff is important. It’s not like, if this is an issue and if people are gonna want it, it’s more…I think it’s completely unique, and if Jake and I can figure out how to scale it, it’s an extremely personable boutique. The agency right now is extremely, extremely personalized and it’s extremely hours intensive. It’s not an app, it’s really hard to scale so I think it’s, whether it’s us, or whether it’s somebody else…there’s going to be somebody who is the leader in this space, or an agency purchases production house or something, because the need is there and people are asking for it. We don’t sell our service, and we only have people coming to us. There’s only one client who we’ve sold to. Everybody else has come to us. And we also don’t put out social media posts, which we should, but it’s really not, again just reiterating that it’s not ‘if we can do it’, it’s ‘if we can figure out how to serve 150 athletes.’ I have no question in my mind that 150 athletes are going to come knocking on our door in the next two years. It’s just ‘can we take them.’
Zac: Yeah, and what’s the reason you can’t take 150 athletes?
David: The systems just need to be strong. We need to get the right people internally, because I don’t want to have 155 clients, but the product might suck. Like, I’m really proud of the product that we built for nine clients. I think we just need to figure out how to onboard the right people and also figure out a way to also monetize through opportunities. I’d love to find a way to monetize through just follower growth. And that’s something that is kind of a question we’re all, we’re always kind of asking ourselves, how do we do this? So, it’s not whether it’s too stressful or anything but it’s more, is the product going to suffer. Right now we can easily handle another 5 to 10 clients. Can we handle 100? No. But also we’re providing a better service to these eight clients or nine clients or whatever we have now, then we did last year with two clients. So these eight clients are getting a better service than those two clients were in the beginning, and I can say that with certainty. And eventually we will probably be able to expand.
Zac: With the NCAA rules changing to allow athletes the opportunity to earn money off of their name, image, and likeness, how will this affect your business?
David: Yeah I mean, first of all, it just makes what we do more important, because if you have a brand you’re going to be able to make more money. You have a strong brand, you’re going to make more money. As for college athletes, we’ve been toying around. We’ve pitched a TikTok house to division one athletes. We’ve talked to many D-1 athletes about helping them out. We have to figure out a way to monetize, because it is extremely labor intensive. So, what we’re thinking about is like picking the right college kid, and then fronting all the bills, and just showing that it can work with the college kid, and calling it an investment for us. And then we’re trying to recover the money on marketing dollars. That’s the micro, and the macro and the big picture of everything, really…it’s massive because now it’s understood that ‘Okay, I want to make money.’ Everybody wants to make money. How do I do that? I do that by getting more followers. That’s what’s valuable to brands. Okay, we’re reverse engineering it out, what’s important to a brand, and with the followers. But what’s important to our followers? The story of the athlete, right? They want entertaining content that’s engaging. Okay, how do we create entertaining content that’s engaging? Okay, we need to tell your story, and either you need to be putting out content on a regular basis, or you need somebody to be helping you on a regular basis. It has nothing to do with your on the field performance. A little bit, like not nothing but a little bit, it helps, but there is a great example – one of our interns from this fall was John and he was an offensive lineman, who was a walk-on. He has over 1.2 million followers on TikTok. He’s entertaining, he puts out content, does a great job, and has a phenomenal brain for it. And it doesn’t matter that he’s not the quarterback of Clemson. And he’s done an amazing job building that, and he’s currently doing an amazing job monetizing it. So, John has set himself up for success. He knows he’s not going to play in the NFL or most likely not going to. That’s why he’s done this. Like, it starts, and I know it makes it more important at a younger age, with like, obviously, it will help our business, but really, it’s not even about our business, it’s about just helping these athletes because it’s just important. We were friends with people who do similar stuff to us, there needs to be more people in it, there needs to be. There needs to be more people talking about it because this is the way that you move to the next level or move, you know, your career, so a lot of issues with athletic identity. What happens after the game…a lot of these athletes struggle extensively with their mental health after the game leaves so it’s like, it’s kind of swimming upstream, and like I said, like I think an insurance policy.