Mike Tollin wants to bring premium sports programming online.
Tollin is a veteran producer and director who for 15 years made popular TV shows (“All That”) and sports movies (“The Bronx is Burning”) alongside Brian Robbins.
When the two stopped working together, Robbins went off to make more youth programming and placed all his bets on digital, founding AwesomenessTV.
Tollin pursued his passion for sports, founding Mandalay Sports Media with Peter Guber. The company has made various TV shows, films and documentaries — but never a web series.
That changes Wednesday with the debut of “My Ink,” a show in which athletes Ray Rice, Brittney Griner and Ryan Sheckler explain the stories behind their tattoos.
TheWrap spoke with Tollin about his first foray into digital, the prospects for sports videos online and his former partner.
What is more personal to these athletes? These stories are all over their skin. If somebody cares enough about something to put it on their skin and go through the pain, it has to be very personal and revealing.
You talk to football players, basketball players, skaters. How did you settle on the storytellers?
We made it up as we went along. I had several different sets of criteria. One was an athlete performing at the highest level. Another is personal dynamism — charm, charisma, candor, comfort in front of the camera. And the third is the commitment and depth of their ink.
It wasn’t exactly scientific, but the first guy we signed up was Ray Rice. He’d just been a part of the Super Bowl-winning Ravens, had a lot of tattoos and is a beloved guy.
How did your approach to storytelling with these five-minutes videos differ from your normal work?
There’s an immediacy and connectivity with the audience. I’m used to traveling around, following people for months and sometimes years. These were done in a day and a half.
If you’re there every morning you become a part of the scenery, but we got a great deal of candor and intimacy in a short period of time.
Any stories that stood out?
You sit there with Brittney Griner and she’s getting a tattoo and talking about her sexuality. About the difficulties and how it’s not been a smooth ride for her. Basketball has given her a sense of confidence.
I could go on for every one; we felt embraced and welcomed by the athletes.
Where did the idea for this come from?
I’m going to give credit to Jon Weinbach. Peter Guber and I started Mandalay Sports Media a little more than a year ago, and we set out to take advantage of the expanding sports media landscape, telling stories for a new audience that consumes its media in new ways.
That led us to digital. I don’t have much experience. I made a lot of movies and long-form documentaries, so it’s kind of exciting to have the challenge of telling stories in five minutes or less.
John was the first guy I hired, and I hired him because he’s not only steeped in the sports world but also told stories at all levels.
Why did you make this show with AOL, as opposed to Yahoo or any of the many companies working on YouTube?
We were represented by CAA. We talked about the style and content and athletes we’d like to feature, shopped it, and AOL had the most enthusiasm.
Are all the athletes represented by CAA?
God no. There was no mandate. I don’t even think Ray Rice is. Ryan Sheckler’s not. There are six episodes going up now and only one of them is — J.R. Smith.
A kid I went to school with considered him a top 15 player in the NBA. I’m not sure how he came to that conclusion.
I had my basketball fantasy draft last night, and he didn’t get drafted. He grew up in rural New Jersey, and he was really candid about how tattoos impact people’s perception of him. He talked about being very aware of women changing the side of the street they are walking on when they see him approaching.
That’s not going to stop him from doing it.
Because this is your first web series, I have to ask. Have you talked to your former partner Brian Robbins about this? He’s obviously gone all-in with Awesomeness.
I saw him last night; he was in the fantasy draft. Our relationship is more personal now. We don’t have professional connections anymore other than a lot of great shared memories.
It’s funny. We had 15 great years together and felt like we earned the right to follow our passions. If you look at where we went; we had a niche in youth and sports. He went in the kids’ directions, and I went in the sports direction.
This company is not a digital company; it’s a sports media company. We’re doing scripted TV, long-form documentaries, feature films. And now we’re doing digital.
What else do you have coming up?
I don’t want to reveal our slate, but we have a series being announced today or tomorrow, a bunch of 30 for 30s for ESPNs, half a dozen movies in development. There’s this enoromous opportunity in an ever-expanding sports media landscape, and the reception has been great.
But you’d make more digital shows?