Stephen Curry, Adam Rippon and How to Make Athlete Series Pop on YouTube

Our Q&A with Portal A's Nate Houghteling

Last month, Adam Rippon skated into the YouTube spotlight in a big way. 

He launched his own channel, anchored by "Break the Ice," a weekly program featuring the Olympic figure-skating medalist, LGBTQ+ icon and Dancing With the Stars champion interviewing celebrities for about 10 minutes while gliding around a rink. (Well, Rippon glides. Most of his guests—like TV host Lilly Singh and beauty blogger Manny Mua, from the first two episodes—just try to keep their balance.)

Portal A, the San Francisco and Los Angeles-based digital studio, produces "Break the Ice." It's the second such content series from the agency, following last year's launch of Stephen Curry's "5 Minutes From Home," in which the NBA megastar chats with friends and notables in an SUV on his way home from Golden State Warriors games. 

Since "5 Minutes" launched a year ago (it's now in Season 2), Curry's overall channel subscriptions spiked by about 40 percent to more than 630,000, with average watch time increasing by 60 percent. 

While Rippon's series is new, Portal A expects such ventures to fast-track the 50-person studio's expansion. A January pact with Wheelhouse Entertainment, providing talent and resources for future projects, should also be a key driver.

"That was a big deal for us," Portal A executive producer and co-founder Nate Houghteling tells Muse. "We've been independent for 10 years, and they took a minority investment in our company. [Wheelhouse CEO] Brent Montgomery came from ITV, and he's a power player in Hollywood. One of his partners is Jimmy Kimmel. So that kind of brings us into a new orbit and a new world we're really excited about." 

It's a far cry from the company's humble start in 2008, when Houghteling set up shop with longtime friends Kai Hasson and Zach Blume (who currently serve as creative director and managing partner, respectively). 

"We went to Asia, and the plan was to make a feature documentary about Vietnam veterans going back to battle sites," Houghteling recalls. "But that quickly morphed into a website where we were posting content called 'Huge in Asia.' We also uploaded some of the videos to YouTube, and a few of them went viral. We got bitten by the bug of digital content and this new wave of emerging platforms and how that was reshaping media."

In the following Q&A, edited for length and clarity, Houghteling discusses Portal A's approach to creating high-impact video that broadens audiences for content makers and builds brands such as Amazon, Google, HBO, Lyft and P&G.

Muse: So, in every episode, Adam will skate with somebody?

Nate Houghteling: Every Monday and Friday, there'll be a vlog video of him at his house speaking to camera about different topics. But then, every Wednesday, there will be a "Break the Ice" episode, where, like you saw, he's going to be interviewing guests on the ice. And so that's going to be a show that will run for the next couple of months. But we have a couple other shows in development. Not all of which take place on the ice.

Adam's great. I could see him hosting a late-night talk show. 

Well, I think you hit it on the head. Adam's a star. He's a very rare talent that started in the world of sports, but really has that crossover potential. And there aren't that many of them. Michael Strahan and others have kind of made that leap. But Adam is so natural in front of the camera. And he is really the draw of the show, both for fans and for guests. He has really fun, influential friends. So, when we started reaching out to people, it was a pretty easy conversation, even though there was no channel up at the time. People said, "Oh, Adam, I love him! He's America's sweetheart! Yes, of course, I'll do it!" 

Is there a specific challenge with making Adam's show? 

Shooting on the ice definitely is a challenge, but it's been a fun one. When the guests get on the ice, some of the formality kind of slips away because everyone is the same when they're tiptoeing around. That's been really fun. 

On the Stephen [Curry] side, the schedule was a huge challenge, but we've been able to build it in creatively. What we said to him from the beginning is, "We will add no extra time to your schedule. We'll shoot this series in the flow of your normal life, and it'll feel like a series." So we worked together on this idea, "5 Minutes From Home." Part of the premise was, "You've got to drive home from the home games. You've got to get back to your family. So why don't we use that time, rig the car, and do the interview show right there?" So, yeah, the challenge is the workaround. 

I keep thinking of James Corden—like Steph and his guests might break into song any minute. 

Totally, totally. I think there's something, like ice skating, about driving around, that kind of brings people together and, again, strips away a lot of the formality. You're just going with a friend to get a late-night snack. Or when Steph and [Philadelphia 76ers star] Joel Embiid went to have dinner at Stephen's wife Ayesha's restaurant in San Francisco—it's just something these people have fun doing, and we're there to capture it and get a great conversation.

Still, it must be rough filming in the car.

Yes. Filming in a car is really challenging because of the space constraint. The first season took place in a sprinter van, which is his normal vehicle driving home from the game. The second season was sponsored by Lyft Entertainment, and so it needed to be filmed in a Lyft. So we've built it in an Infiniti SUV and outfitted it as a Lyft. 

You film the episodes right after Steph leaves the arena?

We wouldn't be able to do it any other way. He comes out of the tunnel and our crew is ready for him, the car is ready, the guest is there, and we pretty much just go. The director's in the vehicle in the passenger seat, so he's able to talk to Stephen and the guests. But we try to keep it as natural and fluid as possible. 

How long does it take to film? Do you ever drive around the block a few times?

No, no. He would know if we were taking the long way home and he would call us out, probably. We don't actually go to his home, but for a late-night snack or a late-night talk at a food truck. So, yeah, we go directly there [to a spot near Curry's residence]. 

So, the conversation we see happens pretty much in real time?

The drive takes about 60 minutes or so, and there's a little bit of time spent in the car before we leave. We cut that down to an 8-10 minute episode.

How long does it take to do an Adam Rippon segment? 

Those take about two to three hours beginning to end. And we've been trying to shoot them multiple in one day, so that we can maximize Adam's schedule.

Adam is retired from competition. Steph is still playing. Are the goals for their series different? 

Every athlete has a different reason to jump onto the platform. I think for Stephen, he's launching his TV and film company, Unanimous Media. He really wants to incubate projects for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu. He's also really keen on owning his own audience in a way that many athletes do on Instagram—but that [platform] can be very personality driven and kind of fleeting. On YouTube, you can really tell a story and crack the narrative. 

I'd say for Adam, [there are] some of the same reasons. He also wants to be associated with these really interesting projects. But [we're] giving him some room to experiment as an onscreen personality and develop his own format as he makes this transition and introduces himself to the world in a new way. For both, there are all these opportunities on the branded side. There are so many brands that want to be involved in these properties. 

How do Steph and Adam think about brand deals for the channels?

The channels themselves are definitely going to be a hub for brands to play a part in. A lot of athletes are beginning to evolve their approach to sponsorship deals, where it's less holding up a can of soda and smiling at the camera in a TV commercial and more bringing the brand to a project the talent is really passionate about. 

The perfect example is what we did with "5 Minutes from Home." This is something that Steph has been working on for a year or more. There's this property we built. Lyft Entertainment came to us and said, "We don't want to change it much, we just want to make it better. How can we do that?" And so they worked with our team and Steph's team to up the level of the content, rather than the brand coming in with a totally different idea, and the talent just being an endorser. 

Adam doesn't have any branding yet, does he?

We're in talks with a few brands to come on for the second season of "Break the Ice." But our overall plan for the channels is to get them set up, establish the connection with the audience, establish the tone independently, and then bring in brand sponsorship over time. 

Steph interviewed Nipsey Hussle and Libby Schaaf. It goes beyond bantering. 

Absolutely. And that comes out of Unanimous and Stephen's desire to do more than just make a chat show or a normal talk show. He wants to speak to larger issues or causes that he cares about, local politics. He's not afraid to speak to things of that level. So that's a big part of Stephen's channel, and I think it will be going forward on Adam's channel. But Adam's model for himself is speaking about important issues and being a voice for a younger generation.

Can Mike Pence skate? Maybe the veep would come on. 

Yeah, yeah! That would be a dream. 

What advice would you give young athletes about getting on YouTube?

YouTube is a really personal medium, and people can sniff BS and spin a mile away. You have to really lean into things you actually care about, not your public persona or how you want to be seen in the world of entertainment. It needs to connect to your true passions. But for a young athlete who wants to get on the platform, if they're really serious about it, I would say to think about what you stand for, what you care about, and then discuss formats and ideas and build out from there. 

How about brands coming to you to get involved in these shows?

I would say the projects that go the furthest and really break through in the culture are the ones that feel authentic, that people actually care about. So, if you can be part of a project like that and really trust your partners, then you can do something very special. And it might be uncomfortable for a while, but in the long run, you will definitely be glad you did it.

Portal A also makes "YouTube Rewind" every year. Are you surprised at its impact?

In some ways I'm surprised, I guess. But in other ways, I'm not. It is capturing the zeitgeist of this fascinating universe that is YouTube. And every year, you think it can't get any bigger or evolve any more, and every year the community grows and the culture becomes more a part of mainstream culture than ever. So, when you bring 200 of the biggest stars on YouTube—that are also becoming some of the biggest stars in the world—together in a single video, it's definitely going to be a can't-miss event. 

The 2018 "YouTube Rewind" drew some serious heat, though.

Since we started working on "Rewind" seven years ago, it's evolved into one of the most high-profile and talked about creative projects on the internet—we're extremely proud of that. The YouTube community is massive, global and passionate, and they're not afraid to let you know what they think. To us, that's a feature, not a bug, and it's one of the things that makes "Rewind" such a compelling property to be associated with.

What's next for Portal A?

One of the most exciting things has been this feature documentary, "State of Pride." YouTube Premium commissioned us. We brought on Academy Award-winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman, and brought them into a package with Raymond Braun [an LGBTQ+ activist whose Pride journey drives the narrative]. It was this really interesting mix of traditional entertainment and digital talent. So, it was accepted by SXSW [and premiered in March]. And it's going to come out [on YouTube at month's end], around the time of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and the 50th anniversary of World Pride. 

As for the future of online video? 

I'd say brands will be looking for more partnership opportunities like the ones I referenced with these channels. Seeing the work that's being done, the properties that are being built, and working directly with talent and with publicists to co-develop things rather than playing in their own space, and then bringing on an agency to execute for them. It'll be more collaborative. 

And then, I'd say brands going deeper—not just releasing single videos or spots, but trying to create connected series that can break through as part of culture, rather than feeling interruptive and skippable.

David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is managing editor at Clio Awards.

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