Fred Taylor, Ryan Clark, and Channing Crowder of ‘The Pivot’ in New York City on May 26, 2022. (Photo credit: Matt Ramirez)
MEDIA

Making ‘The Pivot’ with Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder & Fred Taylor

People dream of doing what they love for a living. Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder, and Fred Taylor have done it twice. Boardroom went behind the scenes of “The Pivot.”

The Wednesday before Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles, Fred Taylor arrives at the Tommie Hollywood hotel with a duffel bag. Taylor is with the same crew he’s since traveled across the country with, filming episodes of “The Pivot:” co-hosts Ryan Clark and Channing Crowder, and executive producer Alicia Zubikowski. This February afternoon, they are waiting to record with Terrell Owens. The Hollywood Sign looms in the distance, just beyond the Tommie’s rooftop balcony, but the merchandise inside the duffel bag symbolizes more to this group than even an iconic landmark.

Clark, Crowder and Taylor spent decades wearing instantly recognizable jerseys as standout collegiate football and NFL players. This feels different. These freshly printed hoodies and T-shirts are the uniform for their team. A viable franchise they built.

“The NFL has been around forever,” Crowder tells Boardroom from a conference room atop One Vanderbilt in New York City on a late May evening. “Football has been around before that. Yale and Princeton were playing in the ’40s. We created a name. We had to go trademark ‘The Pivot.’ We created something from nothing. It’s ours. ‘The Pivot’ right now could have never been nothing.”

And in the process of creating “The Pivot,” they’re illuminating a power unearthed only by first mastering how to help yourself.

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***

“The Pivot” premiered Jan. 4. Already, the show boasts 333,000 YouTube subscribers and 27 million cumulative views across 41 episodes, featuring the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Alex Rodriguez, Caitlyn Jenner, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Taylor Rooks.

“The three people I work with on the daily are part of two of the most popular and best player-led podcasts ever made,” Clark says of Crowder, Taylor and Zubikowski. “We had a head start, right? We were trust fund babies [because of what they did] before they came here.”

This leads us to what has become an inevitable question over the last five months: What made Crowder and Taylor choose Clark as their new teammate and create “The Pivot?”

Crowder, Taylor, and Zubikowski had departed the “I Am Athlete” podcast, which launched in April 2020 alongside Brandon Marshall and Reggie Wayne. (Wayne left and was replaced by Chad Ochocinco after the first season.) It began as a “quarantine dream” and was never intended to be anything more than a fun hobby. As the platform rapidly grew, the foundation fractured.

They are careful with their words, always wanting to take the high road but never shying away from the truth. The series premiere was, of course, titled “The Truth.”

“We never buttoned up our own business,” Taylor explained during the 49-minute episode. “We hit a home run, [but] we couldn’t run fast enough to get back to home plate to get things tightened up.”

In some ways, it was history repeating itself. At the beginning of his all-time great running back career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Taylor trusted the wrong people with his money.

“When those things happen, you now have to learn how to take care of yourself,” Clark explains. “You now have to be not only efficient, but aggressive in protecting yourself against other people who may not have your best financial or personal interests at heart. The other part about it — and this is why I wholeheartedly trust [Taylor] — I know the last thing he’ll ever do for the rest of his life is allow somebody to f– him over monetarily. Along with that, the other thing he would never allow anybody to do is mess over me.”

“To be a good businessman, it’s really about relationships and not screwing over anybody because that energy is always gonna come back,” Taylor adds. “When I saw [Crowder and Zubikowski] getting treated the same way I was being treated, these things make you stronger to make you want to do right by each other.”

***

Athlete-led podcasts are the glossy new vehicle railroading traditional media. An assumption is often made that it’s easy — that “The Pivot” is a glamorous second act somehow bestowed upon Clark, Crowder, and Taylor.

Well, you know what they say about making assumptions.

“I can’t play linebacker any damn more,” says Crowder, who played all six of his NFL seasons with the Miami Dolphins from 2005-10. “If I go back out there, I’m gonna blow up into dust. Freddy, could you run that rock?”

“Nah,” Taylor admits.

“That’s the thing,” Crowder continues. “Football has nothing to do with this. All it does is it gives our name credence in the media market. When everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the ball players’ show.’ No, that’s a good-ass show ran by dudes that used to play ball. You want to embrace what you did on the field, but you also want to show people that I’m not just the dumb athlete — ‘shut up and dribble’ and all that stuff.”

Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor of ‘The Pivot’ in New York City on May 26, 2022. (Photo credit: Matt Ramirez)

“The Pivot” is billed as a podcast, but it’s produced as a high-brow studio show and structured like a company.

As Clark puts it, “The things that we did well in life are why we have a platform; the things we teach are about the ways we failed.”

And so, the only way forward from “I Am Athlete” was to first take care of the business of “The Pivot.”

“Here’s what intelligent people do in life: They find people who have qualities that they do not, and they surround themselves with them,” the former Pittsburgh Steelers safety and Super Bowl champion says. “I’m not necessarily a hoarder of talent, but I am someone who recognizes talents that I either don’t have or have no desire to have. Fred is one of the better businessmen I’ve been around.”

“The biggest thing that this company, this brand, and this podcast has done is we’ve become a family,” he adds.

“I promise you, it’s not fake,” Zubikowski says. “These three really like each other.”

Clark, Crowder, and Taylor aren’t only co-hosts. Along with Zubikowski, they are equal creators, partners, and owners of “The Pivot” as an LLC. Once that aspect was secured, they brought in Shots Studios, founded by John Shahidi and Sam Shahidi, as a media distribution partner. Happy Dad was their first marketing partner, and the show has entered other partnerships to match its booming crossover appeal, such as a deal with PrizePicks throughout this year’s NBA Playoffs. As the franchise continues to blossom at an expedited rate, “The Pivot” deconstructs the myth that ex-athletes can only ever amount to being former athletes.

The Pivot is crazy — hanging out with these motherfuckers all day is crazy,” Crowder says. “But the business of The Pivot is the most buttoned-up shit in the history of time. And that’s the fun of it.”

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***

The “Pivot” team prioritizes relationships both in how their business is structured and how every candid conversation is conducted. Guests visiting “The Pivot” are never just guests. Nobody has ever been paid to appear — not that they’d need convincing anyway. Everyone sitting down on “The Pivot” is a friend and respected peer.

Zubikowski has a unique vantage point. The former NFL Films producer has experienced it all when it comes to handling A-list personnel and humanizing them through delicate storytelling.

“You can have larger-than-life characters, but the ability to peel back layers and present them as human beings like you and I is what separates the great stories from the good ones,” the nine-time Emmy winner says. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with the top athletes and entertainers from Floyd Mayweather to Kobe Bryant to Alex Ovechkin to Tiger Woods to Tom Brady, and more, and getting them comfortable and developing mutual trust and respect allows them to let their guard down.”

Still, she has never seen a dynamic quite like the one at work within “The Pivot” family.

“There’s no one better to exemplify being real and respected than Ryan, Channing and Fred,” she says. “They are the best at being themselves, and we have made a point to treat every guest like our family, and have fun, ask the tough questions but walk away with an impactful conversation. What makes this show special is that it is a reflection of who each of us are as individuals and our experiences.”

Clark, Crowder, and Taylor empower one another to let their individual personalities breathe. Crowder is the earnest comedian, good for off-the-wall, yet blatantly honest comments to derail everything. Clark is the natural point guard, having been in the broadcast game with ESPN since 2015. And Taylor is beloved by the show’s fervent fan base as “the OG” because while he doesn’t interject often, everybody listens when he does.

Together, they emit an infectious chemistry and pure authenticity that inevitably pulls every guest into their orbit of uninhibited expression — resulting in either tears of joy or tears of painful vulnerability.

Last Friday’s episode welcomed actor, activist, and poet Omari Hardwick, known best for playing James “Ghost” St. Patrick on Power. The 70-minute conversation began with light-hearted banter about Clark and Hardwick regularly texting, and the four of them reminisced on their college football glory days. The atmosphere was so relaxed that Hardwick didn’t realize when the tape started running. Five minutes in, Taylor posed that “we’ve never seen a character like” Ghost. Seamlessly, the discussion took on a serious tone — reflecting on accurate representation of the Black community as well as corruption, duality, fate, intentions, and surviving harsh realities.

“You have, though,” Hardwick eventually countered, ”because Fred Taylor is full of Ghost. Ryan Clark is full of Ghost. Channing Crowder? Full of Ghost. Omari Hardwick, full of Ghost.”

To that end, “The Pivot” chips away at the lazy belief that identity is linear. Clark, Crowder, and Taylor, in so many ways, are just getting started. With “The Pivot,” they are spreading the most important truth one can understand: human evolution is never finished.

***

It was Taylor’s idea to name the show “The Pivot.” Now that you’re familiar with the backstory, the reasoning can be surmised on the surface. (This time, you have permission to make an assumption.) But as the show has grown into its own separate from the “I Am Athlete” fray, the name has taken on new meaning.

“It’s always a pivot,” Taylor says of life since launching the series, traveling from city to city to literally and metaphorically meet guests where they’re at. “We’re all over the place.”

“At first, we were so focused on finding out why people pivoted or what was their greatest pivot,” Clark says. “Now, people come on our show to tell us about their biggest pivot, or somehow without us asking them, it comes up. You think back to Shaq. We’re just asking him a question about life or regrets, and for him to bring up his divorce from Shaunie — that being something that was never said. We were on a set crying with The Nature Boy.

“We don’t have to ask for people to tell us their feelings. They come on wanting to. It’s almost like folks come on our show who have seen our show, and they’re like, ‘Oh, hell nah.’ Like, ‘You ain’t going to give up something on this show that makes your episode better than mine.'”

Watching one “Pivot” episode to the next feels like whiplash, but in the best possible way. “Us three, we could talk to any human in the world,” Crowder says. At the beginning of her May 24 episode, Jenner pointed out she was “not your typical guest for this show.” Unintentionally, she touched on an invaluable lesson learned from a closed-door conversation amongst the crew around Jana Kramer’s episode in March.

“It was our first woman [guest], and it was gonna be a white woman as our first woman,” Clark says. “We are three Black men, and the African-American culture or Black culture is different. When something is successful, when something is positive, they grab it and hold onto it as their own. I said, look, if we are going to do this, we just have to be aware of what certain perceptions can be.”

Zubikowski expressed that she didn’t see them as just three Black men who once played football, and she didn’t view “The Pivot” as a strictly Black show. She encouraged everyone to see their platform as one where “anybody of any color, any religion, any gender, any sexual orientation, can sit down with you.”

Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor of ‘The Pivot’ in New York City on May 26, 2022. (Photo credit: Matt Ramirez)

As Black men in America, Clark, Crowder, and Taylor have lived their entire lives busting out of boxes the world decided they belonged in. If there was a perceived ceiling for “The Pivot” before, they’ll be damned if it falls prey to parameters now. And regardless of whomever the next conversation is with, and whichever city it’s filmed in, the home team will never switch up.

“We make every single decision together,” Clark says. “Whether this succeeds or fails is going to be based off of all the people in the room. We all believe in everybody in the room so much that there’s no way it’s going to fail.”

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