The secret behind Tom Brady’s social media
By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist
Gilad Haas had just watched the Dallas Mavericks beat the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden when he got the call.
The Sunday night game eight days ago was a precursor to Celtics great Kevin Garnett’s jersey retirement ceremony, and as Haas — a lifelong Boston sports fan — was waiting for the festivities to begin, his phone lit up.
It was Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time. He was FaceTiming Haas.
Not many people can say that a FaceTime from Brady while they’re at an NBA game constitutes business as usual, but Haas isn’t most people. He’s the managing director of Shadow Lion. You probably haven’t heard of the company, but you might remember the hype video Tom Brady posted online before he led the New England Patriots to an epic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons after trailing 28-3 in Super Bowl LI.
“The Leo is like the lion, the king of the jungle,” Brady says in it, voicing over the footage. “But I don’t think I’m really like that. I kind of like to be more the shadow lion, you know? I’m kind of an introvert, I think. I prefer a lot of alone time. I don’t talk a lot. I just kind of would fade into the background if I had a choice.”
Shadow Lion has been exactly what that quote describes for Brady: the quiet, under-the-radar creative agency behind every piece of content he has ever posted online.
Along with Haas, Shadow Lion — which has close to 15 employees and a stable of freelancers — is helmed by Jeff Fine, the creative director, and Ben Rawitz, a partner/producer at the agency. Rawitz is Fine’s brother and Brady’s manager and right-hand man.
Brady was calling Hass that night because he had decided to come back to the NFL after retiring 41 days earlier, and he needed to tell the world.
“Once I made the decision, I knew I just wanted to get it out and move on to get ready for the season,” Brady told me in an email. “So, I FaceTimed the guys to let them know I was coming back, and we discussed how best to put it out there.”
Brady’s team asked how much time they had to prepare the post.
“I told them, ‘30 minutes?’” Brady said. “So we went back and forth on the language, chose a couple photos and, well… let’s play some football!”
Less than a half-hour later, the whole world knew.
Shadow Lion has mastered the art of capturing Brady’s personality and beaming it out to millions. The company does that for other athletes, too: Shadow Lion manages the social presence of Christian Yelich, Zdeno Chara, J.J. Watt and other high-profile players. It has also worked with Mookie Betts and produced some of Patrick Mahomes’ hype videos, as well as full-length documentaries (such as “Z: Made For This”) and commercial work for EA Sports, Hertz, Under Armour, Aston Martin and numerous other brands. It is about to branch out even more into original content.
“It’s been really cool to watch what started as a scrappy team with Ben, Gilad and Jeff hustling creatively and sort of making the most of it, to now, turning this into a real business with nearly 15 employees and such a bright future,” Brady said.
“At first, especially with Gilad and Jeff, these were young guys (the same age as most of my teammates!) with their finger on the pulse and a lot of potential. It’s just amazing to see their growth as people and professionals over the years and the consistency of positive feedback I’ve gotten about the work we’ve done together. I’m proud of the work that they’ve put in over the years to really build something special and best-in-class.”
Jeff Fine, left, Gilad Haas, center, and Ben Rawitz help the GOAT create and manage his online content through Shadow Lion.
In 2015, I learned that Fine was one of the people in charge of Brady’s online presence, and I first requested to interview him in March 2016. He didn’t respond to any of my requests for four years until he finally agreed to tell me the story behind the TB Times, the fake newspaper he created and posted on Brady’s social channels. At the time of that article, Fine didn’t want to reveal more about the evolution of Brady’s social media.
But the team behind Shadow Lion is finally ready to tell the story of how Brady came to control his own image. Brady’s social media speaks to the broader trend of how famous athletes connect with their fans and how personal channels fit in — or don’t — with traditional sports media coverage.
It’s also the tale of a few Patriots fans who got lucky and an intimate look at who Brady is when only his inner circle can see him.
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How involved is Brady in his own social media? Very.
Shadow Lion might create the content and actually put it online, but Brady writes his own statements and approves every single thing that goes up on his personal channels. He manages his Instagram stories himself and personally posts pictures and captions for family members’ birthdays and anniversaries.
Brady and his wife, the supermodel, businesswoman and activist Gisele Bündchen, give detailed notes on hype videos before they go out to Brady’s 11.7 million followers on Instagram. Brady has even been known to hop on Twitter during an NFL game he isn’t playing in to complain about the refs.
Brady’s social media has come to be the final word on all things Brady.
The best example of the quarterback’s online power became clear when he retired from the NFL after 22 years in the league — and then subsequently unretired less than six weeks later.
The day before the 2022 NFC and AFC championships, ESPN released a report saying Brady was done. Brady had not informed Shadow Lion about his plans. Haas and Fine said that at the time, they didn’t know whether Brady intended to play another season. They were as surprised as the public.
So were the other employees at Shadow Lion, including the team that runs the TB12 brand. It reacted to the news with a tweet that was then quickly taken down. There was no media strategy planned because no one at Shadow Lion knew this news was coming and because Brady didn’t confirm that he was retiring after it broke. Instead, he said he was still taking it “day by day.” The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also said Brady hadn’t informed them of a decision, and Brady’s father denied the report.
“Tom kept that very close to the chest, as far as what he was going to do and when he was going to do it,” Haas told me on a cold February day as I sat with him and Fine in a conference room at Shadow Lion’s offices in Boston.
A few days after the report came out, Brady told Haas and Fine that he did intend to retire. He gave them a written statement to put online, and many fans and outlets accepted the news only once they had heard it from Brady himself.
Some Patriots fans were upset that Brady didn’t mention his time in New England in that first post. At the time, I speculated that perhaps Brady felt like he’d already said goodbye to the Patriots when he left in 2020. Maybe this time he was just saying goodbye to the Bucs. He later tweeted a thank you to Patriots Nation.
“I think Tom is the king of compartmentalizing,” Haas said. “That’s kind of his superpower to some extent, too. He goes down 28-3, will go to the locker room, will forget about it, and then he’ll come back out and perform. And so I think it carries over into every part of his life.”
A day after the ESPN report broke, Haas and Fine began putting together a retrospective video of Brady’s career. They still didn’t know what Brady would do, but they wanted to have something ready in case he needed it. The original cut featured highlights from Brady’s seven Super Bowl wins and 10 conference championships. Haas and Fine sent it to Brady after he told them he was indeed hanging up his cleats.
He told them to change it completely.
“Tom was like, ‘No, to me, football is about my family, my friends, my teammates, coaches and fans and the moments that we all shared and that emotional connection,’” Fine said. “And that needed to be front and center.”
Haas and Fine might have thought of football milestones, such as the Patriots’ undefeated regular season in 2007, but when Brady thought about that season, he thought about the year his son, Jack, was born. He gave the Shadow Lion team notes on how to make the video feel more personal. When everyone was happy with it, Fine and Haas put it online.
And then in mid-March, Brady told them he was coming back.
This time, he broke the news himself.
Brady’s social media can provide hints into what he’s thinking but might not say. Take, for example, the fact that he came out of retirement right after videos of him and his sons meeting soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo popped up on his feed. It hardly seems like a coincidence that Brady chose to return shortly after he sat in the stands at Old Trafford and watched Ronaldo score a hat trick for Manchester United.
Or that he said, in his retirement statement, “I have realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands.”
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Brady is not the only athlete who has started a production company or creative agency; LeBron James, Marshawn Lynch, Peyton and Eli Manning and many others have similar business models. But according to EA Sports athlete marketing lead Ty Stover, Shadow Lion was the first one to seriously shift how companies work with athletes. If you want Tom Brady to post something on his social channels, your best bet is to hire Shadow Lion.
“Tom Brady has leverage. He’s the greatest to ever do it,” Stover said. “Basically, you’re going to use [Shadow Lion], or you won’t get Tom. That forces the issue, but in a good way, in my opinion. You get a lot more value and engagement if you have the right people doing it.”
EA Sports first trusted Shadow Lion in 2017, when Haas and Fine wrote the script for and produced the famous video announcing that Brady would be on the cover of the video game Madden NFL ‘18. In the short film, Brady gives a speech to the “board” of TB12 (it was actually a collection of Fine’s father’s friends) while firmly ensconced in a plastic bubble — a nod to the Madden Curse.
It was well-executed and self-deprecating, and it showed Brady’s ability to tap into his intensity for purposes other than football.
“Ultimately, Shadow Lion has changed the way I’ve thought about how much control brands need to have [over athletes’ content],” Stover said.
Social media has obviously changed the way athletes convey information, and it means that fair and thorough journalism is more critical than ever. But well-produced channels let athletes paint a fuller picture of how they want to be seen.
“Most of the time, fans get to see the cliché interview responses of, ‘We’re trying our best. We’re looking forward to having a great season. We don’t know where it’s gonna take us, but we gotta trust the process,’” former National League MVP Christian Yelich, one of Shadow Lion’s clients, told me on the phone.
“When you’re doing the generic, boring answers during your media session, you’re saying a lot, but you’re really saying nothing. [Shadow Lion] helps show the side of you that fans don’t get to see, of just being a regular person.”
Shadow Lion has kept Brady’s online tone consistent with his actual voice. In both, he’s straightforward, intense and earnest, with healthy doses of humor. His answers to my questions sounded just like how he speaks on social media. They showed his forward-looking mentality.
Here’s what he said when I asked if he had a favorite Shadow Lion post.
“As far as favorite of all time? The next one… ;)”
But the full backstory of how he came to have a voice online is just as interesting as the story he tells about himself on the internet.
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Rawitz, now 39, talked his way into an internship with the Patriots in 2004 and started working for the team full-time in 2005. He took on any task that needed doing, which meant he donned the sweaty mascot costume and handed out fresh Sharpies when the Patriots signed autographs. He showed up early and stayed late, and the players came to like him, Brady in particular. Eventually, Rawitz became the quarterback’s personal assistant.
Rawitz has since become Brady’s second brain. No one goes through Brady without first going through Rawitz, and if Rawitz decides you cannot pass, you never will.
Rawitz and Fine (the two are technically half-brothers, but they’re so close that Rawitz says he has been known to tear up when telling people how proud he is of Fine) grew up in the Boston suburb of Wellesley. As Rawitz became more and more involved in Brady’s business deals, someone needed to take over tasks such as walking the dog and buying groceries for Brady, Bündchen and their children, Jack, Ben and Vivian.
“In the world of Tom, it’s just all about trust, right?” Rawitz said. “That was always our first, No. 1 ingredient. Because it was so hard to find that. There’s nobody I trust or love more than my brother Jeff.”
Fine took over as Brady’s assistant after graduating from Syracuse in 2014. On his first day, he was helping Brady and Bündchen’s nanny at the time, Luciana Schmidt Barbiero, entertain Jack and Ben. Everything was going well until Jack jumped up to grab Fine’s hat and fell down in the process. Jack started to cry, and Barbiero looked at Fine like, “Who is this guy?”
In a lovely turn of events, Fine and Barbiero are now married.
Rawitz says his brother brought a lightness to his and Brady’s day-to-day life. Fine is funny and animated in person; he talks about the importance of joy and his desire to make beautiful things.
Fine also has an uncanny sense for the internet; it was he who helped Rawitz convince Brady that the quarterback needed to create social media channels in 2013.
“Anything I do, I want to do it 100 percent and at the highest level,” Brady said. “Social media just seemed like such a big commitment and something I didn’t fully understand at the beginning, but Ben and I had already developed a huge amount of trust and familiarity working together over the years, so that was really the basis for everything. He already understood who I am and what I care about on a personal level, and given how close Ben and Jeff are, that trust extended easily from the start and just grew from there with Gilad coming on.”
Fine and Rawitz compiled all the reasons Brady should launch social channels — including the fact that more and more brands were requiring social posts in their endorsement deals — and outlined their plan for running them. Fine described the presentation as “absurdly long” and “bonkers.”
“It was clear that a lot of effort and excitement had been put into the game plan,” Brady said of the brothers’ plan. “So at that point, it was sort of like, ‘Why not? Let’s give it a shot.’ And then I started getting all of this positive feedback! Even that early on, I realized pretty quickly that we had something special in the works. If [there] was going to be anyone to really understand me on a personal level and communicate to my fans on social, it was going to be these guys by my side that I rely on every day.”
Managing Brady’s Facebook page became Fine’s favorite part of his job. When he wasn’t helping Brady and his family at their home, he workshopped ideas with friends such as Kevin Bonner, who is now a creative director at Shadow Lion.
Fine also was still helping Brady at home, and the two jobs fed off of each other. One day in 2014, Fine was cleaning out Brady’s basement. Rawitz was helping him sort through boxes, and they found Brady’s college résumé in one of them. Fine knew fans would love to see the document Brady would’ve sent to employers if the Patriots hadn’t chosen him in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft.
Brady gave his blessing, and it went viral.
It was the first of many Tom Brady posts to make waves on the internet.
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After the résumé post, Brady’s social media started getting funnier. On Jan. 12, 2015, a poorly Photoshopped image of Brady riding the Colts’ logo appeared on the quarterback’s Facebook page. Six days later, the Patriots beat Indianapolis to win the AFC Championship, and Brady was off to his sixth Super Bowl. It would end up being his fourth Super Bowl win.
I was shocked.
Not by the Patriots’ win, of course. Since I was 11, Brady had spoiled me and everyone I grew up with in New England.
No, I expected my team to be great, but I didn’t expect my quarterback to be goofy. My jaw dropped again when, on the Wednesday before the 2015 Super Bowl, this image popped up on Brady’s page (Facebook was the only social media account Brady had at the time).
Brady played for a team whose slogan was “Do Your Job.” Starting with coach Bill Belichick’s famously terse statements (“We’re on to Cincinnati”), personality and individuality were not celebrated in Foxborough. The team came before the players, and information was doled out as sparingly as possible. A generation of Pats die-hards grew up chanting “No Days Off,” as though they hated weekends.
I knew Brady as the stoic, serious, determined and intense savior of New England. But after a decade and a half, he was showing a silly side.
“I think there’s an element of always being part of a team, you sort of take on the identity of that team,” Brady said. “So this sort of became an outlet for a side of me that wasn’t always football but was more like me hanging with friends or family. And I think that’s become clear through my social media. If people have had some fun with it along the way and enjoyed what we’ve put out, then that’s really what it’s all about. And I have always felt like being positive and optimistic works best for me in my life, so that’s what I always want reflected.”
The images from the early days of Brady’s social seemed to be purposefully rough and nonsensical, in the vein of the movie “Step Brothers” or Danny McBride’s TV show “Eastbound and Down,” at a time when almost every 20-something straight guy in Boston had a Will Ferrell quote in his Tinder bio (something I wish I didn‘t know, but here we are).
Was Brady, I wondered at the time, funny?
Last week, I asked him.
“I’m all about positivity, happiness and lightness,” he said. “What you see on social is definitely my sense of humor (with a fair amount of Gilad, Jeff and Kevin mixed in there!). I think we share a certain sensibility for what we think is funny and what people would like. We are never afraid of pushing the limits.”
Brady’s early posts landed squarely in that late-2000s, early-2010s humorous sweet spot during which some Millennials became adults and which many younger Patriots fans found funny. This is, of course, because a 23-year-old Millennial was running Brady’s account with Brady’s blessing.
But Fine knew he needed to level up, and he knew he needed help.
Enter: Gilad Haas.
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In 2017, Haas had recently graduated from Emerson College. The native of Sharon, Massachusetts, studied film and television in school, filming DJ’s sets at clubs in Boston for $50 a pop. He was good at what he did and secured a gig making hype videos for former Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman.
Haas and Fine had a shadow rivalry. Fine noticed that Edelman’s hype videos were getting better, and Haas strove to make Edelman’s videos better than Brady’s, but neither knew who the other was. When a mutual friend finally introduced them, any sense of competition vanished. They clicked immediately.
“I could see us being friends for a very long time,” Fine said. “It was also like, ‘Oh, dude, we need exactly you. We need to work together. We could actually make the bigger stuff we’re talking about with you here.’”
Some of that bigger stuff included the first full-length documentary Brady was involved in producing, called “Tom vs. Time” (directed by Gotham Chopra and produced by Religion of Sports) for Facebook. Fine and Rawitz needed to trust the person who would have the intimate access necessary to film Brady. Fine showed Haas’ reel to Brady, Rawitz and Chopra, and Brady told Fine to hire Haas on the spot.
Haas was in Los Angeles with Edelman when he got the call. He flew back to Massachusetts and started working with the team the next day.
Haas and Fine seem to share a head space. Haas is a little more grounded than Fine, the long tether to Fine’s balloon. Neither of them ever takes credit for something without first crediting the other or shouting out a different member of the Shadow Lion team.
“Ego is the enemy,” Haas said. “We don’t like to talk about ourselves.”
It would be difficult to believe that if I had just met these guys and they were talking about themselves for an article. But I had been trying to get them to do so for the better part of a decade, and this is the first time they’ve agreed.
Haas and Fine now say that the best part of their jobs is developing the other people they’ve brought into the company.
“Our culture comes from Tom in the sense of the leadership, the selflessness, the support,” Haas continued. “The mentality of honoring your teammates, doing your job and being prepared.”
The glowing way Fine and Haas talk about Brady reveals a lot about how Brady treats the people who work for him. So do Brady’s actions behind the scenes: He once made Fine remove an image of Brady as Captain Planet from a TB Times graphic because he wanted his teammates, not himself, depicted as the heroes. The Shadow Lion team learned how to walk the line between the individual and the team while giving fans glimpses into the quarterback’s guarded life.
“I’ve always been a very private person,” Brady said. “So initially, social media wasn’t really natural for me. But working with Shadow Lion has shown me that there’s a real benefit to sharing your story, and there’s a way of doing it that feels right and true to who I am.”
When Shadow Lion officially incorporated in 2017, Brady told Fine and Haas to make sure that every post had emotion.
“My favorite movies and books became my favorite movies and books because they resonated with me emotionally,” Brady said. “One of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou always comes to mind: ‘People won’t remember what you said, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.’ I definitely saw that as the backbone for anything we were putting out. I think that sentiment applies to any form of communication or storytelling, and the guys certainly took it to heart.”
Shadow Lion was humanizing Brady with the feelings they elicited with his posts. They showed a wacky side with images such as the TB Times, which spanned a few seasons, and provided an intimate fan experience with the selfie videos the agency asked Brady to film after wins. Through it all, Brady was adamant that his platforms lift up his teammates.
“I try to share what I find important,” Brady said. “It’s not as much of a deliberate strategy to celebrate teammates on my social channels as much as it is just another very important part of my life that’s reflected in what I decide to post. I think the reality is that we’re all on social so often, so it really can have an impact.”
Brady’s videos have also influenced popular culture. In 2019, Brady and Rob Gronkowski filmed one after winning the 2019 AFC Championship. They said nothing, simply nodding at the camera as Diddy’s “Bad Boys For Life” played.
Someone on Diddy’s team reached out to Haas and told him that streams of “Bad Boys For Life” increased tenfold after that post went up. Haas and Fine heard the song blaring from cars in Boston in the weeks following. It has become a meme; three years later, athletes still set videos to the song after wins.
Shadow Lion wants to continue its work with athletes and brands. But the agency is also branching out into more and more original content, as well as expanding its own presence on social.
“I’m a big believer in the importance of Team,” Brady said, capitalizing the T in team.
So is the group of people who had the right skill sets, who have a similar work ethic to Brady’s and who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“We’re just a few Patriots fans who got lucky,” Fine said, “and had a chance to be in the boat.”
Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of “The People’s Sports Podcast” for FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.
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