behind the news

SI, Drew Brees, and TRX

Upstart exercise company gets priceless plug in the venerable sports-journalism brand
August 5, 2014

The opening photo of a July 28 Sports Illustrated “exclusive” on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ off-season training is splashed across two pages and it is glorious. Wearing a black T-shirt with the logo of an exercise brand called TRX across his chest like Superman’s S, he appears to levitate. He is actually supported by a solidly planted single hand and the TRX straps around his ankles–by grit and a product built as tough as he is, as it were.

He says this about the product, approvingly: “A full workout … can absolutely destroy you.”

The depth of Brees’ appreciation for TRX was already suggested in a June 19 SI Web feature on Randy Hetrick, the former Navy Seal who invented the TRX. “TRX is now a part of every workout I do–and my wife, Brittany, loves the TRX as well, so it is a family affair,” Brees wrote in an email quoted in the story.

But neither piece acknowledged, as Brees’ own Twitter feed and the TRX website do, that he is a paid endorser for TRX, or that he has an ownership stake in the company that makes the product, as announced in a 2009 press release from the company.

After a note I sent to journalism blogger Jim Romenesko about the training piece prompted a post last week, SI spokesman Scott Novak responded to the post with a brief statement:

This was a story about how an elite QB entering his 14th season stays at the top of his game, while affording readers access to those same training methods. It was not a story about TRX, though we should have disclosed the relationship. It was unintentional, but it should have been acknowledged.

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Novak later told me in a phone interview that SI “take[s] every instance of these matters seriously and address[es] them accordingly.” He declined to discuss how “these matters” were addressed, although a version of the training story on the SI website now includes this footnote: “This story has been amended to disclose that Brees is an investor in TRX, which was not reported in the original story.”

Novak did say that both stories were pushed on SI Edge, a cross-platform effort that debuted in the spring and purports to deliver the “ultimate in fitness, performance, action sports and adventure content, videos and news.” Some recent examples of what that means: “Oakley debuts sports performance eyewear for youth,” “Adidas adds boost cushioning to Crazylight and D Rose 5,” and “Camelback puts the latest technology on your back.”

Novak said that SI Edge is subject to the same editorial standards as the rest of SI’s content. TRX did not pay for placement and is not an SI advertiser, he said, but wouldn’t discuss the genesis of the Brees stories. The freelancer who wrote the Web piece wouldn’t speak on the record; the staffer who wrote the print piece didn’t respond to an email to SI seeking comment.

Marc Altieri, though, a co-founder of marketing firm The Brand Amp, which he said has handled public relations for TRX for the entire decade of the brand’s existence, explained in an email that the stories were “driven through the proactive outreach efforts of our team.” His people had set up the meeting between TRX’s Randy Hetrick and an SI editor that led to the profile, he said in a subsequent phone interview; his people had also pitched the workout story and coordinated the photoshoot.

While the photos of mid-workout Drew Brees quickly appeared on the TRX website, Altieri said he couldn’t take credit for the TRX T-shirt Brees wears in all the photos that came out of the SI shoot.

L’affaire Brees this is not. According to Altieri, Brees’ ownership stake in TRX is miniscule. A couple of instances of slipshod practice by SI do not constitute journalistic fraud. Moreover, the SI stories are engaging and informative (much more so than some Edge content, rather less than other SI work, including an excellent feature on a skydiving accident that appeared in the July 28 issue).

But a simple line in each SI story acknowledging Brees’ vested interest in TRX would not change the strong sense that both are greater feats of marketing and public relations than journalism.

The training story in particular–with its accompanying subhead promising readers they don’t “have to be an All-Pro to reap the benefits of functional fitness”–represents a remarkable accomplishment for TRX, a company that this year did a mere $60 million in sales, by its founder’s account.

Altieri and his team started with a character, Brees, who is immensely compelling to the SI readership. He is superbly talented but approachable, battling middle age and a receding hairline, with apparently powerful and genuine feelings about an exercise product he uses routinely.

The marketers cultivated their sources and did their groundwork to deliver SI’s reach of approximately 3 million weekly print readers and millions more online visitors. They brought to bear goodwill built over the more than half century of the magazine’s publication to sell product, saving their client the expense of an ad buy.

That is a familiar trick, though one usually reserved for much larger brands, including the sports leagues themselves.

Nicholas Spangler has been a staff writer at Newsday since 2010. Prior to that, he was a reporter for the Miami Herald. On September 11, 2001, he was a student at the Columbia Journalism School, reporting in Lower Manhattan.