Arenas, the one-time Washington Wizards star, has stayed almost entirely out of traditional media since his playing career ended, instead relying on sometimes outrageous Instagram videos and comments to communicate to the public. Khalifa, who parlayed a brief dalliance with adult movies into an unexpected career as a social media star, creates regular headlines with her similarly unfiltered approach.
For Complex News, the goal was to create “an anti-sports show sports show,” a program that feels “as close to the commentary that is happening in living rooms and on social media as possible,” according to Noah Callahan-Bever, the company’s chief content officer. And so, the fact that Arenas and Khalifa have made their biggest marks on social media in recent years? That’s a feature, not a bug.
“How are we going to create a product that is competitive in a sports landscape that is fairly crowded, and create a product that is totally differentiated in its voice?” Callahan-Bever asked. “We’re going to have to get people that are totally differentiated in their voice, people that ESPN and Fox would never even entertain putting on their platform, but that are compelling, and that we can demonstrate are compelling. … Just like Gilbert, there is a rawness to [Khalifa] and to the way she talks about sports that I think is going to create a package that cannot be replicated by any of these more mainstream competitors.”
The show will mark a return to the mainstream for Arenas, who in just a few years went from an NBA all-star and one of the sport’s most likable and charismatic players to a little-used reserve who appeared radioactive to sponsors. He stopped playing more than five years ago — while continuing to get paid from his last, massive deal — and headed home to Southern California, where he became a regular on TMZ and other gossip blogs.
Callahan-Bever had identified Arenas as a dream host for Complex years ago, worrying that he would “go to the grave thinking, if only we could have pulled that off.” The network began to seriously envision a daily sports show after the success of its hip-hop themed YouTube show “Everyday Struggle,” which launched this spring, and when Callahan-Bever called Arenas, the 35-year-old immediately expressed interest. Before his career petered out amid injuries and the locker room gun incident in Washington, Arenas had been hailed as one of the first superstar athletes to embrace the Internet, and to do so with the honesty and humor that Complex wanted.
“When you have that confluence of hyper intelligence and total candor with a proclivity for hyperbole, you end up getting just the best quotes in the world, and he is definitely cut from that cloth,” Callahan-Bever said. “When we did a rough cut, literally from the moment we had a little pregame meeting in the conference room all the way through calling cut, every single thing he said I was like, ‘Oh my God this will make news. This is amazing.’ ”
Arenas’s internet humor, though, has sometimes left sports fans wishing he had a stronger filter. In recent years, he’s mocked the victims of the Flint water crisis, claimed he’s used his credit card to illegally obtain cash to pay for strippers, and made comments about the WNBA so offensive that the league released a statement calling them “repugnant, utterly disrespectful and flat-out wrong.”
For his foil, Complex turned to Khalifa, who grew up in Montgomery County as a massive Washington sports fan and has become perhaps the most recognizable D.C. sports booster in certain corners of the Internet. She also has a knack for pressing buttons online; “basically every time we covered her on Complex News, it performed incredibly well,” Callahan-Bever said.
Khalifa knew Arenas only through social media, but she grew up both rooting for him and the Wizards and dreaming of a career in sports. The proposed show, she said, was “everything that I wanted.”
A Complex staffer showed her a draft of the news release this week, “and it all just hit me: Holy crap, I’m on a show with one of my childhood heroes,” she said after a rehearsal Monday. “It still hasn’t sunk in. I don’t think it will for a while. But I almost cried on set today.”
The show will be broadcast out of Los Angeles at 2 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Thursday. It will be moderated by Complex News host Pierce Simpson, in a format similar to Everyday Struggle, which matched rapper Joe Budden with Internet personality DJ Akademiks. That show averages more than a million views per episode, according to Callahan-Bever.
Khalifa said the sports pairing will work because of the same traits that earned her and Arenas their social media followings: honesty, humor and a willingness to offend.
“If there is anyone on the Internet who’s less filtered than me, it’s him,” she said of Arenas, describing their rehearsals as “controlled chaos” and Arenas as a genuine sweetheart who can’t stop himself from saying what’s on his mind. “We don’t apologize for anything. If we say something that’s unpopular, we don’t put out a fake apology; we just roll with it and take the heat.”
Complex Networks, a joint venture between Verizon and Hearst, describes itself as a lifestyle brand focusing on pop culture for an audience consisting largely of young men. This show will have its challenges: breaking into the crowded sports landscape, making sure Arenas stays engaged without crossing any uncrossable lines, transferring two personalities who have succeeded online into a more structured format. But putting them in a room together in recent weeks has only raised Callahan-Bever’s hopes.
“My absolute conviction here is that this is going to be as successful as [Everyday Struggle], and — because the world of sports is a larger audience than the world of rap — this could be potentially bigger,” he said. “The goal here is to make something that frankly supplants those [mainstream sports] shows for our audience, so that they are getting the same thing that they usually get — their fix from the sports world — but they’re getting it with an edge. We’re all complicated people, and the two of them are both complicated in kind of similar and interesting ways. Knock on wood it’s going to be a game changer for them, and for us, and for the audience.”
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