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Boardroom Q&A: Mike Tannenbaum & Tony Pettiti

The 33rd Team’s founder Mike Tannenbaum and new co-CEO Tony Pettiti discuss new investments and the company’s direction and ambitions.

After a career running the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, Mike Tannenbaum started The 33rd Team — a football-focused media company that tapped former NFL coaches as talent. Robust weekly calls with those coaches and former players began in 2019, with an assist from former NFL general manager and now company CEO Joe Banner.

Soon, The 33rd Team became a strong and growing football content machine with expert voices ranging from current stars like Leonard Fournette and Cam Jordan to former players, coaches, and executives like Carson Palmer, Marvin Lewis, and Bill Polian.

Late last month, Tannenbaum and Banner hired Tony Pettiti, a former MLB deputy commissioner, as co-CEO. Pettiti comes to The 33rd Team after filling key executive roles at CBS Sports, MLB Network, and Activision Blizzard. The move came together through investment deals the company made with Formula 1 and Atlanta Braves parent company Liberty Media, and hedge fund Baupost Group.

Boardroom spoke with Tannenbaum and Pettiti about the direction of the company and how it’s become a force in the NFL landscape.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Shlomo Sprung: Tony, why did you join The 33rd team as co-CEO?

Tony Pettiti: The last year or so in working with Liberty and Baupost, we were looking at all kinds of opportunities and Mike and I got reconnected by Coach [Bill] Parcells. We really got to know a lot more about what Mike and Joe Banner had created and what they’re doing. And I really liked the idea and I felt that with the right type of investment and resources, we could really take it to a different level. The clincher for me was early on when Mike and I were having conversations with Joe, former players, and some of the people that have participated on the calls that Mike and the guys were doing every week. And their reaction was so positive, so eager to do this and to contribute content and be a part of it, that to me it was just a no brainer. 

When we went through the process and were able to lock in the support that we needed to build the company, I think that part was really a game changer. I really believed in the idea that Mike had, but also then seeing and talking to so many NFL people, so many former players and coaches and how enthusiastic they were about wanting to work with us and provide this content, that was the thing that really cemented it for me. 

SS: Mike, why was it important for Tony to come aboard, and why was he the right fit?

Mike Tannenbaum: This journey for me actually started going back probably to 2006 and I was just fortunate to become a GM. I felt like if I ever had the opportunity, I wanted to give back to others. My wife and I just started a whole bunch of scholarships where we helped young men and women get to where they wanted to go so they could take unpaid internships. Then we sort of crystallized that in 2019 when I got an opportunity with ESPN and I needed help and we hired interns.

The 33rd Team first met in Amherst in March of 2019, and there was a bunch of coaches early on, Dan Quinn, Greg Schiano, Jim Caldwell that thought they were gonna need some help and assistance and we just had a whole bunch of buy-in and people who wanted to learn and get better. And then after that, Joe Banner joined us and it really helped, especially with his background [in] fantasy and gambling. And as Tony mentioned, I got reconnected with him. He was like, ‘Mike, if we could just professionalize content, you really might have something here.’ Candidly, I was really much more focused on the placement and supporting coaches between opportunities than I was thinking about it as a media company. I was just very, very lucky that Tony had the time and the space in his professional career to do it. For Tony to come in with two blue chip companies like Liberty and Baupost is just the best-case scenario for us and for him to bring his expertise and acumen, we can’t ask for a better partner. 

SS: When did you think becoming a media company was something that was not only viable but something that you wanted to try and pursue? 

Mike Tannenbaum: I don’t know if there was some inflection point. I just felt like we were really into this placement of interns and helping coaches and guys like Dan Quinn and Doug Pederson transition back, be it the Cowboys or the Jaguars. So I knew the organization was working from the student and coaching standpoint, and Joe, myself, and a few others kept brainstorming and wondered what else we can do with this. We had an unbelievable turnout with these meetings. We’ll get 80-plus coaches, players, and GMs on these weekly calls, which became these great discussions. Tony was a lot of the impetus, because he would just sit in the back of these calls listening and he quickly had a vision of where he thought he could take the company.

In March 2019, there were five of us. And really the goal of it was ‘let’s just stay current.’ So whatever is going on in the NFL with current events. Where we got really lucky was when the pandemic hit. It made virtual meetings much more mainstream. That really helped us from an organizational standpoint because it normalized having meetings virtually. One time, I remember Chris Long and Wade Phillips debating on a call how good this one pass rusher was. I was like, ‘this is awesome.’ I’m just a fly on the wall listening to two guys and I’m learning a lot. And the weekly calls just took off organically. 

SS: From those calls, is that how a lot of content is being developed now or has it advanced to the point where these people are producing dedicated articles? 

Tony Petitti: The calls are still important. They happen every week and they lead to discussions that lead to other topics and camaraderie. And there is some content generation, but part of the vision was once we started signing the former players and coaches, we just put them on a content schedule. Just like if you were running linear studio shows, you have time periods that people would come in, you’d cast certain shows, whether it’s shows I worked on at MLB Network or CBS. Those all have schedules. We try to do the same thing, but in our format where we’re just doing it where the athlete, the coach is talking directly to the audience. 

We try to keep the schedule of these guys. We listened to them and figured out when the best times were for them to create the content. And we try to be super flexible, which was part of the recruiting process of getting guys on board. And that made it relatively easy. So we’re able to have current players because we can work around their schedule and we have this technology, it’s called Bitfire. They click on it, we have our producers on, we can then edit and add B-roll and images, graphics. And we have guys generating four or five pieces of content in less than 20 minutes. Early in the week, we might have 15 or 16 recording sessions going where we’re taping guys on various topics and the way it works is we’ll suggest topics. We react to the games that just happened, and as we move through the week, we’ll start focusing on the next week’s matchups and the team of analysts that we have suggested topics and things that they want to talk about and see where it goes.

What we’re hearing now is more and more people reaching out to want to be a part of it. The content generation is easy, it’s fun. They get to talk about things they’re passionate about.

SS: Obviously a big part of it is having an athlete-first model and cutting out people like me…

Mike Tannenbaum: Everything we generate video-wise, we also have writers that transcribe and add to it. We are trying to have articles that we’re generating from written staff. And in addition to all the great organic football information that we have from our football staff, we also have the same type of organic contributors on the fantasy and the betting side. So we’ve hired people in that space that really know and live it every day and they’re able to contribute. So we’re doing somewhere between 65 and 70 pieces of content a week just in that space. And there is some overlap. We put some of our football guys together with our fantasy and betting staff. So we’re starting to see more of that. And then we obviously have a staff of writers as well that’ll give us some more long form content when we need it.

from the33rdteam.com

SS: Tony, why do you think Liberty Media saw such promise in the 33rd Team?

Tony Pettiti:  For both groups, I think they really believe in sports. And then I think secondly, they really like the ability to go direct to consumer. They have many businesses that do that as well. So it was a really good combination. And they really like the idea of Mike’s vision of what he created, the direction we can take it in and pivot. The whole collective group sees athletes wanting to talk to fans. This is directionally very with the trend you’re seeing, which started with the way athletes were sharing their lives on social media and now you’re seeing them talk to fans not only about things off the field, their lives, but the games, how they’re coached, how they improve things, and celebrating each other and their teammates while acknowledging the competition. Our production technique really salutes that trend.

SS: Mike, how much is Tony’s experience in television going to help guide the future of the company? 

Mike Tannenbaum:  I think it’s all about Tony. Tony’s been a leader, be it CBS channel 2 [in New York], CBS Sports, and MLB, most notably as deputy commissioner. To have somebody of his acumen and experience is just incredible for us beyond anything I could have reasonably hoped for. So how to staff, how to budget, how to spend money, how to market, all the different tentacles that running a company entails. Tony has an incredible track record. 

Tony Pettiti: That was really nice. The one thing I’ll say is that we’ve done a really good job with John Entz working with us. He was the first executive producer at MLB Network and was really responsible for a lot of the buildout of the network and the production as we have identified a really great digital production staff. We have the technology. We have a lot of folks that were trained at certain parts of their career more linear to television, but they’ve also transitioned to generating more digital and content on social platforms as well. We’ve been able to attract a really great staff and then those folks have gone out and hired a really great team right off the bat that’s able to create content on all different platforms very quickly. They understand how to get it out, and the timeliness of what we were doing is really critical. We have identified some really talented people all over the country and we’re doing this all remotely, which is really pretty remarkable and a testament to what’s happened over the last couple of years. But we are able to produce that way. We’re all excited to talk about football. It’s really contagious and that’s something that’s been building every week since we’ve been doing this.

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SS: Mike, where do you guys grow from here? What kind of goals or growth areas are you targeting over the next 12-18 months? 

Mike Tannenbaum: First of all, every day we’re trying to validate the idea and make progress. And from there, there are a lot of different permutations of that. What we’ve shown is there’s certainly an appetite for this sort of content. What’s really important for us is we want to execute this vision first and execute it well. And from there, there’s a lot of different possibilities. But the task at hand right now is to make sure that we stack one good day on top of the next, continue to show growth, and then reassess once we have what we feel is a rock solid foundation. 

SS: What are some of those possibilities you just spoke about? 

Mike Tannenbaum: Certainly when you look at other sports, there’s always a possibility in terms of there’s never going to be a shortage of people that are rotating in and off jobs. But again, those are conversations we want to have once we have much more of a foundation. While we definitely have an eye towards the future, right now we’re head down and trying to get this vision to be as airtight as possible. 

SS: Have people from other sports reached out to you? 

Mike Tannenbaum: I actually hear from people all the time. Our Wednesday calls are somewhere between a town hall meeting and Noah’s ark. If you have an interest in sports, we have some very notable NBA people, college basketball people, a ton of college football people. I’m just blown away by guys like Dan Quinn, Doug Pederson, Wade Phillips, Mike Martz, Marc Trestman, and Eric Mangini that come on every single week. One of my first times I felt really good about what we were doing was I actually caught Doug Pederson taking notes. Here’s a Super Bowl winning coach taking notes, and that was inspiring. 

The whole name of the organization is not by accident. We want to comport ourselves like the 32 other teams. Being on time, competency of work. Those things really matter, and as long as we keep the standards high, we’re going to keep attracting people and the numbers will keep on growing. Our job is to keep tracking good football people, help students, help the coaches, and make sure that people feel like it’s a good use of their time. 

SS: What would you say your guys’ biggest obstacles are currently? 

Mike Tannenbaum: We have to do things to stand out. There’s tons of content in the space and a lot of it is obviously very good, so we’ve got to be able to differentiate. The ability to have a place where fantasy, betting, and football are all in one place, you’re starting to see some of that. We’ve also built this great fantasy and betting tool called The Edge, which is available to fans for free. It allows you to utilize data to help make good decisions about your fantasy lineup, and we really feel like this tool is a great thing to offer to fans completely for free. It was developed by our team and with Sports Info Solutions. They did a really good job of building it. 

Our overall challenge is to provide fans something they think is unique, new, different, and resonant. It’s a really simple thing. What do football fans care about today, and how can we bring all these incredible voices that we have to those topics? How can we teach fans something they may not have been thinking about? 

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