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Racquet cofounder talks evolutions of tennis, media—Part 2
Published Apr 14, 2021
The below serves as our bookend to our conversation with David Shaftel, cofounder and editor of Racquet magazine—and one of the minds, with co-editor Caitlin Thompson, the mag's publisher, behind Racquet: The Book. It's a smartly curated tome compiling best-of longform pieces from the quarterly's first three-or-so years. Chase this piece with part 1 of the phone chat between Shaftel and Jonathan Scott, a 10-year veteran of our tennis-culture coverage. As with part 1, this convo has been edited for length and clarity.
Jonathan Scott: David, your publication is a primo example of the difference between a magazine, especially a quarterly and—not to get too "American Psycho business card" about it—but the paper stock of such a pub versus a monthly or weekly magazine, versus a daily newspaper. It's just so super-shareable, collectible. It stays on that coffee table, then goes on the shelf to gaze at, because it's beautiful, or gets shared with a friend not long after that.
But as you said [in part 1 of our conversation], the sport largely delivers all these contorted-face groundstroke photos. So what you have the opportunity to do is set the bar higher with the aesthetic in this artful way. Petra Kvitova at this European club, caked in clay in these gorgeous shots.
David Shaftel: That was great. A couple examples: We were looking for a picture of Patrick Mouratoglou doing the hand signals to tell Serena to come in at the US Open final. And then yesterday I was looking at pictures of Bianca Andreescu having an injury tended to. There was nothing of Patrick, and the Bianca stuff was limiting. And I've done some photography, a lot of editing, a little shooting. These are the moments you need to be paying attention to—expressions, especially during changeovers. And everyone's taking a break during the changeover, editing in their camera.
JS: Talk to me, and whoever reads this, about the biz plan for Racquet. About putting something in the world that wasn't there before, that fills a void. Not just in the market, but in the heads and hearts of people who truly appreciate what surrounds tennis, the tennis life.
DS: This was all very much planned from the beginning, and we spent a lot of time talking to other independent magazine publishers. And one of the reasons we wanted to do the magazine is because we loved publishing, and liberal journalists, and wanted to basically do this stuff on our own. And that was really empowering as journalists. But again, we knew that the business model had to contain more. So that has taken us to considering and developing pieces for TV and film. And that's just stuff that we really want to do. That's fun. And we'd love to see ourselves in that venue.
We did a few films last year with a company called Topic Studios, short films, a suite of four short films. That's First Look Media, they own the Intercept and some other things. And we've got a couple of projects that I can't really talk about at the moment that are kind of getting close.
JS: I look forward to talking about them in the future.
DS: Me, too, really. I mean, these things, it's so hard when you have to learn that business, you know Hollywood and Netflix and production companies and the legal aspect. That was a steep learning curve.
JS: Just even the intellectual property and legal aspects of it.
DS: But even just knowing the language, to talk in those conversations and what people's motivations are, and how you just come upon something like that. Anyway, that's one basket, the other is the selling. The magazine really is part of an e-commerce business. For us, that's got a huge audience and a huge subscriber base. That's great. My wife works at Travel + Leisure, and they've got like a million subscribers. So they're in this old model of ad revenue–driven publishing, but they're OK because they're huge. But anyhow, for a company like us and actually for Repeater, the publisher that did the book with us, it's like this.
It's got to be e-commerce. The magazine distribution game, Barnes & Noble, airports' Hudson News spots—this industry is not built for independent publishing.
So I consider that part of the e-commerce business. So we also have these fun collaborations like we did with Paterson Skateboards. We've got some shoes coming out, which I also can't talk about yet. They're very exciting. [Editor's Note: Since this Q&A took place, scope that Adidas collab.]
And then we have clothing that we make. We did some T-shirts and sweatpants that were kind of one of our first organized merchandise drops. So e-commerce, which to me includes the magazine. There are these pieces to business developing, and then doing creative consulting on brand work, design work for brands for tennis stakeholders. Around September each year, we start talking about who we're going to work with for next year. We've done some of it, some digital marketing for Fred Perry. We did a magazine for Feeler. That was the last year, we've done a few little design jobs for Adidas Originals, which is fun, and pushes for Stan Smith's book launch.
JS: Which is just a perfect marriage of culture, of everything that you do.
DS: Yeah, a lot of these heritage brands. We worked with Sergio Tacchini for the first part of 2020. They're bringing that brand back and just needed some help navigating the tennis landscape. That partnership was a perfect alignment for us. So that stuff is, I'll be candid, more lucrative than publishing. But you need the magazine to bring in the people who love the magazine and come to us and say, you know, we want to get back into tennis. Especially now that a lot of the conversation has changed around diversity and inclusion, and we've been talking about that since day one. So you get people coming in and saying, what you do in the magazine, I want to bring that to my brand.
Now, bear in mind, we also keep the magazine editorially totally clean. So it's a pure journalistic exercise. We don't sell that space, but people come in and say, can we place this story in your magazine? And we say, no, you can't do that, but here's what we can do for you and point to digital work, doing posters, doing magazines for people. A range of consulting.
JS: The magazine's foundational, though you're also grounded, especially at this juncture, in advertorial opportunities. Racquet as magazine remains the centralized "mothership" of the operation, and everything fans out from there.
DS: And everything else kind of makes a bit more sense from a pure business standpoint. But it's this intangible thing, right? The main thing is expensive to produce. It does well enough, it breaks even and allows us to get all this other work. And again, if we can have a story in the magazine that we think we can develop into a film, and then there's merchandise around it, that's kind of the perfect situation for us.
JS: One thing leads to another.
DS: Yeah, so that's really how the business works. And then I look after, as editor of the magazine, all the editorial stuff. We've been doing some stuff online during Covid which has given us a chance to test that out. We're pretty infrequent. We have a Friday newsletter and we have some stories day to day, but we don't have the churn of a true digital publishing schedule at this time.
JS: I've noticed just with a newsletter and just the emails that go out. You do, through Giri Nathan's writing for the newsletter—which just has a no-holds-barred, punchy voice about it—some speaking to what's quasi–breaking news. You guys are there with a relatively quick-strike piece that needs to happen that obviously isn't for a quarterly. Even ramping up to the US Open [in 2020], I saw you get increasingly aggressive with editorial content over email.
DS: Yeah, totally. I mean, we jus get a lot of ideas and have a lot of people in our ecosystem that we just can't use that frequently. And with really six months of lead time, the conception factor is a lot. I can turn something around pretty quickly if I need to, but we plan so far ahead that' it's great to just able to be in the conversation, frankly. And again, we were used to the early days of clients and, really, we were just all so stressed and didn't know what to do, and pulled our energies into getting our ducks in a row as a business. Not that they weren't [in a row], but saying, all right, let's see what we're doing with the web redesign, backend stuff, warehouse stuff. It was hard and stressful, we feel like we really set ourselves up during that time [of the pandemic]. We didn't just go out of business. We are stronger now.
JS: You've got a lot of operations by this point, and you're still standing. What else?
DS: Digital marketing. We've really worked to find time to breathe when tennis is on, and [the tours are] playing all the time. We're going to tournaments. With Covid, we just had the time to do some of the stuff that's a little further down path that you deal with. And one of those was with digital stuff and figuring out what the larger point is. We're a small team, and we're able to be flexible. You know, Giri was to be writing stuff on tennis—well, [for a lot of 2020] there was no tennis. So it was like, well, what are we going to do? And we had to figure out what he was going to write about, and we're pretty pleased with how it all worked out. And we used that time to try out digital a little better, to try out a new warehouse or to try new marketing strategies. These are also things that, when you start to want to print a magazine, nobody gets into it, as they want to talk about those logistics.
JS: With all these things in mind, and just the multiplatform aspects of what Racquet has become and is yet becoming, a couple questions. First one, tracking back to the print product that you started with, that was always known—that's just editorial in the 2010s, now 2020s, that it was not going to be a long-term, major revenue play. From an editorial standpoint, as I'm a journalism-school kid: You're a longtime writer, editor, so what is the story or a couple of the stories that you're yet just kind of yearning and burning to tell? And then second, let's speak to the Racquet book itself: What was truly the catalyst for the idea to put the best of what you have to date into book form?
DS: So, the first question—stories I'm yearning to tell. What I really want is sort of unfettered access to players. We've had it a few times. I just want to be able to spend time with someone in the manner of like an Esquire profile from the 1960s. We've done it a couple of times. I don't want the 10 minutes in the conference room. People, and the athletes, aren't going to see value in that. I get it, but I just want to be able to produce profiles like they used to, basically.
JS: Riding along in cars, right?
DS: Yeah, exactly. I don't know if you've read our Danielle Collins piece, and that there wasn't much time with her. But she fired the coach during it. It's just those moments that you don't get in the conference room. So it's nothing specific, it's just that I just want less control from the handlers, and I understand why they don't want to do that. And that, frankly, they shouldn't do it, but that's what I want to do. Now, with Covid, it's been even worse, but I want to send someone to Bombay to hang out with a player.
JS: Right. Somebody like a Collins might give you a lot in a very short, compressed time, versus it might take a day or two, doing a little bit of life with some other players who are more guarded or just less talkative.
DS: I mean, one of the things you appeal to, I don't know if it's the vanity of the players or you just get them to trust you a little bit. So Danielle had some photos taken of her by one of our photographers, and and she loved him. So she was amenable to the interview. There are different ways to it. Benoit [Paire] just kind of didn't give a f—, which is what we love about him.
JS: That one doesn't hate attention.
DS: Yeah. And that's why we were going to do something with Taro Daniel, but it got canceled because of Covid. I just want the whole picture. But to your second question, as far as what we chose for the book, I had a philosophy behind it, and I tried to stick to it, but it's really the cultural stuff, the tennis-adjacent stuff. There was some stuff like our Maria Sharapova profile, which was just, I think, one of the very best things we've ever done, so I had to include it. But just sort of the tennis-adjacent stuff and this personal essay stuff—the stuff about the culture with sort of weird takes, unexpected stuff. The idea being that one day we'll have enough for a book of the player profiles. Maybe the next book is the Racquet history of tennis, where we just take all the nostalgia stories and put them together to provide sort of an ultimate history of the game. So there was a lot to choose from, and I just tried to segregate it into some stuff that I thought would go together.
Another way of saying it is this is just actually my favorite stuff, our favorite stuff from the first four years, but there's stuff that I left out because I didn't want to take everything good. I wanted to have some good stuff from the early years for the next book. I tried to stay away from the pro game as much as possible, the sort of straight tennis profiles, also staying away from the straight historical.
JS: The opportunity here is also just the geocentric stuff. I have the book before me as we speak. There's such rich interplay between tennis and literature. The factors of so much Soviet and Russian stuff, with that national team coming to Philadelphia. World TeamTennis. The Sharapova story that you talked about, being iconic and central to the Racquet story overall to date. Back to lit, the intersection of tennis and the novel Lolita, of all things. It's just ...
DS: Yeah. Oh, that story.
JS: All that stuff. I mean, it's a healthy Russia-centric output here. And/or maybe it's that lately I'm watching the FX show The Americans ...
DS: Yeah, I know we should do a shoot on a Russian book. The Lolita story is a perfect example of a Racquet story. Louisa Hall was introduced to us by one of our writers and it's like—she's a novelist and a professor, and she teaches Lolita and this tennis motif. She's the only person who can write it. She was burning to write it, and she did a great job. That's what I really want, someone who has a weird or quirky story, who's the only person that can execute it and has no other place to publish it, and it's in some tiny way related to tennis. That's really the criteria.
JS: What you've got here is people, as with Racquet, putting something special in the world. You can feel it even when you hold it, hold the book, hold the quarterly pub. Your contributors are this set of seasoned or burgeoning professionals, across such a range of backgrounds. It's probably them wanting to get something out that, in some cases, they have been saving or seeking to write about for so long.
DS: That's the deal. And for the book, it's also notable that Repeater is a sort of an independent, leftwing publisher in Britain. The editor is as an old family friend, but we're very much philosophically aligned. They never did anything in tennis. I mean, the English or British left is very diverse, so they can publish all these books, having debate among the left and far left, and the farther left stuff, and they're a great partner. They're very much in favor of the empowerment of the author and cutting out the middleman, in favor of simple contracts and payment systems, and just being independent, being into people. It was a really good fit for us, and they're distributed by Random House. You have some of the best of both worlds, the sort of diehard independence, but then you have Random House distributions and we wanted to get that, as we're so niche.
If this is your entry point to the conversation, read part 1 of David Shaftel and Jonathan Scott slinging verbal volleys about the publishing and tennis industries, personalities, platforms, and more.