Why The Bleacher Report?
Bleacher Report is a premier digital destination for millions of sports fans where they can create, collaborate and celebrate the sports they love – Basketball, Golf, football, you name it. It is a modern blogging platform made for sports lovers by sports lovers.
Though they’re not a bootstrapped publisher and has been raising funds for years, we decided to cover their story because of two reasons.
– They were born and raised in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s not easy to raise funds and continually build a community when the market is collapsing.
– The uphill battle faced by the publisher, especially against the likes of ESPN, NBC, etc. is dramatic. This means we all can bag a lot of lessons from it.
Let’s get into the report.
How it all started?
It’s convenient to look at the obvious-side of the publisher and say, ‘well they’ve been acquired by the TBS (Turner Broadcasting Systems) and so, they can get $100 million just to do social media distribution’.
The truth remains the same for all. The Bleacher Report has started its website (to be frank, a blog) back in 2007 with no prior online presence and followers. Four friends (who are, of course, sports fans) found it difficult to raise their voices and keep up with like-minded fans. After college, they decided to build a product to solve the pain point – Bleacher Report. The rest, as they say, is history.
When they launched in beta, supposedly around 2006, they were able to attract 400,000 visitors. If you’re wondering how they did it, we would say the answer in just a word – Community.
As obvious it seems, sports websites rely on fans and followers. Don’t you think the audience will get excited when they are given a platform to critique and discuss with each other online?
That being said, the growth wasn’t easy at all. Think about maintaining content-quality when there are millions of contributors. In fact, thousands of editors worked round the clock to ensure the veracity of the information. On top of that, the pressure and criticism from the top media outlets were deflating, to say the least.
Where they are today?
Bleacher Report is among the world’s top 10 sports websites, reaching 250+ million users across the globe. While there are hundreds of other user-generated sport content websites out there, BleacherReport stands out against them due to their partnerships with CBS, the LA Times, and other large regional and national media outlets. These sites attract millennial visitors every day and direct them to the bleacherreport.com.
The million visitors essentially mean impressive advertising revenues. The president, Rory Brown said that the company has increased its revenue by 17% YOY in 2017 and is profitable.
Bleacher Report has made constant efforts to grow revenue through non-traditional, integrated marketing and promotional programs with advertisers and agencies.
Their brand strategies and sales are driven by the momentum of building audience-based advertising campaigns.
To name a few,
Bleacher Report unveiled a new multi-platform campaign earlier this year, “Up Your Game,” highlighting the brand’s growing influence on sports and culture. The campaign illustrated how Bleacher Report goes beyond the one-dimensional point-of-view of traditional sports and taps into new ways to drive deeper connections with fans. Through this strategy, Bleacher Report has seen tremendous growth in its audiences (Src).
Another great example would be the B/R Entertainment division’s animated series “Game of Zones”. The series received 40 million views and landed AT&T as an ad sponsor.
Becoming the Bleacher Report
Bleacher Report was founded in 2007 by Alexander Freund, Dave Nemetz, David Finocchio and Bryan Goldberg. It HQ’ed in San Francisco, with offices in New York City and London. Since the Bleacher Report was founded, it has participated in 5 rounds of funding, raising a total of $40 million (from Crunchbase).
So, any publisher (not just you) will be surprised to hear four young graduates secured millions of funding to run a media company. Bryan Goldberg, co-founder might be the reason.
“It [The Bleacher Report] was sketched based on the business plans I had learned about. I had taken competitive strategy in college, a sort of pre-MBA course for what was supposed to be a very pre-MBA life. We had a four- or five-page business plan with competitive advantage and differentiation.”
– Bryan Goldberg, Co-founder, Bleacher Report(Src).
Cash Flow and Growth
In 2008 Bleacher Report completed a round of Series A securing $1.5 million from Hillsven Capital, Transcoast Capital, and Jakob Lodwick (the founder of Vimeo), among others on the occasion of its public launch in February.
As they’ve shown promising results and potential to earn revenue through its beta stage, investors are convinced with the platform.
Eight months later, Bleacher Report secured another $3.5 million in Series B funding from Hillsven, Gordon Crawford, and SoftTech VC in the month of October.
You can consider Series B as a reward for the growth they’ve generated. In just 8 months, the publisher has grown their visitors by 300% to reach 2 million unique visitors per month. By October, 400 articles were published every day by 7000+ writers. The page views were through the roof as you have guessed.
And, that’s not all. If you’re in San Francisco around 2007 – 2008 period, it was quite easy to meet people and discuss ideas. The community was small yet influential.
While they were backed by the growing community, they needed to be more than a media outlet to woo investors.
You had to say, “This is about tech.” You always have to begin every VC pitch by saying, “Oh, we’re not a media company. This isn’t about advertising. This is about technology.” Which was complete bulls—. But you know what? It got the job done, and you have to live one day at a time.
– Bryan Goldberg, Bleacher Report.
However, B/R was half-right. They just didn’t publish content. They were building a platform to assist and allow the sports community to thrive online. You’ll accept the statement later when you see acquisition by the publisher.
Content Partnerships and Syndication
B/R has a content partnership with CBSSports.com. Headlines from Bleacher Report will appear throughout CBSSports.com, pushing traffic back to Bleacher Report. FoxSports.com also holds a content syndication deal with Bleacher Report, but Dave Nemetz, Bleacher Report co-founder, described the CBS pact as more immersive.
Seriously, it’s series C
Most media companies start by creating quality content and then try to figure out how to monetize it. Bleacher Report had done the opposite. In 2010, B/R completed a $10.5 million Series C capital investment in a round led by Crosslink Capital. The funding round was followed by an auspicious period of 12 months for B/R during which they welcomed 10 million new monthly users (from 6 million in Dec. 2009) making them one of the fastest-growing sites on the Internet with over 16 million monthly users. (src)
One of the compelling characteristics of the team at B/R is its ability to form long-term partnerships. And, they don’t end it with the MoUs. They continually work with the partnered vendors or agencies or even, VCs to accelerate the growth and meet the goals of both the companies in the equation.
“This disruptive publishing platform has outstanding potential to revolutionize the way fans find and consume sports content on the internet.”
– Eric Chin, Crosslink Partner (src).
Finally, A Sales Team
Would you be surprised if we say they didn’t have a proper sales team in place like other similar outlets till 2011? You heard us, right. It only changed when CBS executive jumped into the game.
Rich Calacci, senior vice president at CBS Interactive in charge of the sports vertical joined as the Chief Revenue Officer and cited the impact of the publisher on sports as the reason for joining.
Not relying on Social Media (too much)
We all agree now that relying on social media platforms (ahem, Facebook) to drive users is not a good idea. The publisher knew it all along. On one hand, it was investing heavily to increase their social media followers and interactions.
On the other hand, it was working hard to capture the visitor from other platforms and make them as its own member. In 2010, B/R had over 1+ million email newsletter subscribers and that was a HUGE asset till today, helping them drive traffic and ad sales.
We call it ‘the decision of the year 2010’. The publisher founded by 20+-year-old graduates hired a grown-up CEO. In fact, they were running it well enough to scare big titles of the sports industry. Yet they hired Brian Grey, who ran Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports.
“Hey, this thing’s really big. You’ve got 70 employees. You’re making real money. You’re selling to top brands. You guys should have a real grown-up CEO.”
– Bryan Goldberg, Co-founder, B/R.
On an interview with Business Insider, Bryan Goldberg revealed that they found that it is time to hire a professional CEO who has experience. Besides, a well-known industry professional can close big rounds of fundings and surprising ad sales.
Speaking of which, Bleacher Report has started closing big sports six-figure ad deals on par with the other big outlets, thanks to mainstream advertisers like Gillette and Axe.
The engagement and active commentary from the audience were enough to stay above the traditional CTRs.
B/R – Sport Brand
When they hit this decade, they were already a brand for sports advertisers. The funding round of Bleacher Report on Aug 2011 was beneficial and fetched them a whopping $22 Million.
Forbes.com called Bleacher Report “one of the leaders” among sports startups noting the company’s success in “providing publishing tools” to all sorts of knowledgeable sports fans to report and express what they know.
Bleacher Report was also named one of Time magazine’s “50 Best Websites of 2011,” and was picked by Adweek readers as 2011’s “Best Sports Media Brand.”(src)
The Bleacher Report has one of the best newsletter programs, in the media industry. The subscribers were getting customized updates on their favorite sports teams which constantly drives back the readers to the site as well as other companies that are advertised in the newsletter.
So yeah, they utilized their subscribers to the fullest and with the resonating content, they maintained the open rates as well.
Ad Refreshing Technology
They’re also one of the few websites that have the auto ad refreshing technology. Ad refreshing or simply, ad refresh is the process of requesting and rendering a new ad while the user is on the page. Typically, ads can be refreshed based on time period, user actions, and events.
Agreed. Now everyone does ad refreshing and after all, Google has its own ad refreshing feature for publishers. But it wasn’t easy a couple of years ago when the industry complained that this [ad refreshing] is actually gaming the system of online advertising.
There’s a whole series about it. You can subscribe to ad refreshing series here.
But the B/R was able to do it the right way. Not refreshing to squeeze more money out of every page view, but genuinely rotating the ads based on the user interactions.
UX and Non-intrusive Ads
None of the ads were inline and intrusive. No pop-ups too.
When you garner millions of page views, you’ll end up placing the maximum number of ads on a page. But the B/R consistently maintained only 3 to 5 (maximum) right from the start. The best part is, they ran only the famous ad sizes (300*250, 728*90, 970*66) to ensure the availability of demand at any time (Src).
In fact, they embrace programmatic as they believed in the potential of online advertising. And, to this day, they continue to do so.
“We’re talking to others but we’re talking to you because we know you’ll create content experiences that will stand on their own as different and original and compelling, let’s work together on that.”
Here’s a fact. Building an audience-driven community is really hard, but when you do, you’ll get the advertisers for sure. Remember the old saying, ‘you reap what you saw’?
It goes well with the B/R. The publisher has molded them as a platform for next-generation sports fans and athletes. In fact, the president, Rory Brown said that the advertisers working with B/R also spend on TV ads. They are here as they need something different and unique.
Bleacher report has always been known for creating an experience and pulling in audiences naturally. The approach does wonders for advertisers and drives incredible awareness.
The $175 million Acquisition
We call this an ultimate outcome phase of B/R. All the work they’ve done saw its result when TBS announced that it will acquire the publisher for $175 million. The publisher has skyrocketed its valuation and VCs consider it as one of the best exits for a media company.
“With the acquisition of Bleacher Report, we have added another dimension to our portfolio of digital and mobile properties that will enable us to offer our advertising partners integrated opportunities across all screens and demos that will enhance our ability to monetize sports programming throughout the entire year.”
– David Levy, President of Sales, Turner Broadcasting.
At the time B/R had 86 million unique visitors and in 2012 it became a part of Turners sports division which manages digital properties on behalf of NBA, NCAA and PGA and also oversees ad sales for NASCAR.COM as well as strategic sales relations with young sports.
According to one source close to Bleacher Report, the site is on track for $40 million revenue in 2012. (src)
Brian Grey had an important role in the M&A and besides, the co-founders, even though young, had the experience to know what there is to know in a media company.
You’ve got a creative side, the sales side, and the technology piece, so you’re thinking with all three sections of your brain.
– Bryan Goldberg, Co-founder, Bleacher Report.
Breakout hits (Game of Zones and Gridiron Heights)
Bleachers Report instead of pre-roll, they want to sell sponsorships or branded integrations to back their video content.
Its two big hits are “Gridiron Heights,” which was sold to PlayStation and NBA-focused “Game of Zones,” which is sponsored by AT&T.
“Game of Zones” on an average got them 4 million views per episode last season, and the series has attracted 70 million views across platforms to date. PlayStation took an interest in “Gridiron Heights” after its first season pushed total views to 60 million(src).
Grey said that this investment is very important for the progress of Bleachers Report, the video got 80 million views across all platforms in September getting a jump of 560 percent over 2014.
Data insights – StatMilk
Taking the viewership data into consideration, Bleacher Report has the data insights that generate from their networks because they themselves are the delivery system which gives them a clear view of data insights.
The publisher’s one and only acquisition ‘StatMilk’ can pull in some impressive charts and data that you could use. It is an analytics app for a sports fan and can be used to show all the data you could possibly imagine about a team or player.
The B/R didn’t have a clean shot to the victory. Their growth becomes stagnant around 2015 and Beckley Mason, Senior Director of Branded Content at B/R has to do something to revive the publisher.
“We started really focusing on platform-specific.”
On a Social Media Week event in LA, Mason said that they had to view the social media in a different way and slash the traditional engagement metrics to set goals.
“We asked ourselves if you had to tell this story in one way on each platform, how do you do that,” Mason explained. “We started really focusing on platform-specific.”, said Mason.
Moving away from CTAs (call to action), Bleacher Report’s Facebook page saw 200 percent growth. “This is the platform where we really took the no CTA approach and we saw immediate gains.” B/R has been quickly climbing the digital ladder and gained a lot of attention for its unique and creative approach to content and media.
$100 Million For Social Media
Impressed by the growth and reach, Turner planned to spend $100 million over the course of three years on Bleacher Report to accelerate the digital sports property, expand its social media, grow audiences and revenue through Bleacher Report’s app.
Of all strategies, capitalizing on the moment is the best. We know sports events are periodic and unexpected play can happen anytime, not just in a press conference. The publisher embraces the fact that real-time coverage and strategic distribution can create a greater experience for fans and followers than to report it later.
There will be a team waiting to capture the compelling moments in a game and they’ll update it on real-time.
Partnership with StubHub
Last year, StubHub announced a multi-year, cross-platform content partnership with Bleacher Report (Src).
They mainly focused on improving viewers on Bleacher Reports website whether viewers use B/R’s website or its Team Stream app, the fastest growing sports app. The goal is to make content consuming a pleasant experience.
Howard Mittman CRO and CMO of B/R said that Bleacher Report’s innovative perspective changes the way fans engage with the teams and athletes. Their audience and business growth is proof to their strategy paying off. Brian has been on the front lines telling the B/R story to their ad partners and helping them tap into their highly active audience.
Coming Spring, Turner Broadcasting System will launch a sports streaming service and will rely on Bleacher Report to get viewers (both the B/R website and mobile application).
When you know what you do, you will have an upper hand. Though Bleacher Reporter faced criticism and content-quality, SEO issues (because of the duplicate content from the writers), it faced them all and stayed on its path to success. There is no way you can consistently grow on all sides of the business and B/R still struggles to capitalize on TV viewers and older sports fans.
However, they know it’s better to attract the millennial audience and balance their investment/reliance on social media. Most importantly, even after a decade, programmatic advertising helps them to hit their revenue expectations.