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SBJ/August 29-September 4, 2011/MediaPrint All
Bleacher Report last week took two significant steps toward continuing the growth of the open-source sports journalism hub, announcing a $22 million venture capital round and the hiring of five prominent online writers.
The new financing is led by new investor Oak Investment Partners and joined by prior Bleacher Report investors Hillsven Capital and Crosslink Capital.
Bleacher Report last December closed on a $10.5 million venture capital round and was not planning to take another funding round so soon. But Chief Executive Officer Brian Grey said last week that the site is strongly outperforming internal business plans on both traffic and revenue for the year, necessitating some growth-related decisions ahead of schedule.
“This round of money has really set us up now to go after it,” Grey said. “We are focused on building a really big, independent, stand-alone company and publishing platform, and delivering an experience for the fan that isn’t out there anywhere else.”
The money will be spent on additional products and possibly an international expansion, as opposed to cashing out early investors. The $22 million by itself eclipses Bleacher Report’s initial three funding rounds, and collectively, nearly $39 million has now been invested in the company.
On the editorial front, Bleacher Report has created a “Lead Writer Program,” in which featured contributors will help shape the site’s content and direction. The move follows the hiring earlier this year of King Kaufman from Salon.com to be manager of writer development, the establishment of more rigid policies for writers to get work published, and the creation of a compensation program to pay select writers on the site.
The initial five lead writers are Dan Levy, formerly of SportingNews.com and WashingtonPost.com; Matt Miller, founder of the NFL draft site New Era Scouting; Dan Rubenstein, co-founder and co-host of independent college football podcast “The Solid Verbal”; Josh Zerkle, co-founder of NFL blog Kissing Suzy Kolber; and Bethlehem Shoals, founder of NBA blog FreeDarko.
Golf Channel will produce a pregame show around NBC’s coverage of the Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola on Sept. 24-25, the first time NBC has attached a pregame show to one of its golf events.
Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman and Brandel Chamblee will host two half-hour editions of “Golf Central” live from East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta on that Saturday and Sunday.
“This will be a landmark show for golf,” said Golf Channel President Mike McCarley. “There has never been a network pregame show for golf before.”
The move to use one of Golf Channel’s most recognized brands in NBC’s golf coverage marks yet another step in the company’s move to integrate Comcast’s Golf Channel and NBC Sports’ golf coverage. Earlier this year, NBC’s golf coverage was rebranded as “Golf Channel on NBC” and NBC’s golf analysts started appearing on Golf Channel.
The pregame show is intended to attract and benefit casual viewers by telling stories and giving information about the event and the tour.
For example, the pregame show will explain the points system behind the FedEx Cup.
Viewers also will be able to watch tournament action live on Golf Channel during the pregame show. Golf Channel has rights to show Thursday/Friday coverage of the Tour Championship, as well as weekend rounds when NBC isn’t carrying it.
McCarley is convinced that this type of integration will help viewership at both the broadcast and cable network. Since the two started working closer together, Golf Channel has seen its viewership increase 29 percent, with shoulder programming like “Golf Central” seeing a 52 percent jump through the second quarter.
New York-based SportsNet New York quietly has launched a second feed in Connecticut that will carry many of that state’s sports teams.
The regional sports network has spent the past several months testing the feed, which is branded SNY-CT. It will feature between 100 and 200 additional hours of programming per year.
A separate feed represents a low-cost way for a channel like SNY to further localize content without having to launch a full-fledged channel. All SNY viewers will see Mets games and shows like “SportsNight.” But when SNY shows New York-centric content like high school basketball or repeat programming, its feed in Connecticut will replace that programming with Connecticut-focused sports.
“We think there’s an opportunity in Connecticut — not for a full channel — but to customize parts of SNY for Connecticut viewers,” said SNY President Steve Raab. “It became a natural opportunity for us.”
Raab has considered the idea of launching a separate feed in Connecticut for at least two years. He finally decided to do it after seeing the strong ratings that University of Connecticut sports programming were generating in the state.
For example, 13 UConn basketball games on SNY averaged a 5.0 rating in the Hartford DMA, paced by a February matchup against Providence, which drew a 7.3 rating. Five football games averaged a 2.9 rating in Hartford, topping out with a 6.1 against Cincinnati.
Last August, SNY became the official TV home of UConn football and men’s basketball, a move that helped SNY gain cable distribution throughout Connecticut.
“The UConn ratings in Connecticut were really strong,” Raab said. “We were encouraged by that.”
SNY has signed deals with Fairfield University for three games (mostly basketball) and Quinnipiac University for six games (mostly basketball and hockey). It’s also had serious conversations — but no deals yet — with Yale and the AHL’s Sound Tigers.
These are described as programming partnerships that do not involve rights fees.
It also has the rights to re-air UConn football and basketball games and plans to show evergreen programming, like interviews with UConn basketball coaches Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun.
SNY executives say the move already has attracted Connecticut-specific advertisers, including People’s United Bank, Town Fair Tire, DiGiorgi Roofing and Siding, and Blimpie.
“It gives Connecticut-specific advertisers a chance to focus on a more narrow audience,” Raab said.
Raab said he has no immediate plans for other feeds in New Jersey and upstate New York. But if the Connecticut feed is successful, he expects to look into those markets.
“This is a big piece for us to bite off and digest,” Raab said. “If it works in Connecticut, are there other areas that will work? Can you create or gain rights to content to make all this hyper localization meaningful? A lot of pieces have to come together.”
The SEC Digital Network is moving swiftly into the smart TV market with an application that has hit Samsung, Sony and Google TV Internet-connected televisions.
The free app, which launched this summer and now is available in an estimated 8 million to 10 million homes, delivers a combination of game replays and original content produced through XOS Digital, which runs the SEC’s network.
XOS is in talks with other distributors, such as Roku and Boxee, to blanket the smart TV category with SEC content. The SEC’s network previously has been available over the Internet at SECdigitalnetwork.com and on mobile devices, but this recent move into smart TV gives the SEC further coverage on the digital landscape.
XOS is in the process of trying to sell a title sponsorship for the smart TV app. The company draws revenue from the network through a combination of its video-on-demand fees and advertising.
“What we’re developing is the deepest and richest video-on-demand library that’s available anywhere, anytime,” said Shaun Pope, the director of strategic content partnerships at XOS Digital. “The growth of the smart TV market has been pretty explosive and it enables the viewer to watch all of this great digital content in HD in their living room on a TV that has Internet connectivity.”
XOS creates original SEC pregame and postgame programming, documentaries and other studio shows distributed on the various platforms for free. Archived games can be accessed from the video-on-demand store for $3 to $4 for a 48-hour rental.