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Association of Surfing Professionals International signed its first media deals for all 26 of its major events with YouTube, ESPN and Facebook.
The deal with YouTube will see ASP launch its own channel and stream all 26 events live worldwide for the first time. ASP and YouTube work together on advertising and sponsorship sales, and they will share revenue from the channel. The live YouTube coverage will be complemented in the U.S. by TV coverage from ESPN, which signed a three-year deal to be the exclusive broadcaster of 26 recap shows following all of the ASP’s events.
YouTube will carry live coverage of ASP events.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
To help drive viewers to both YouTube and ESPN, ASP signed a partnership with Facebook and Instagram, which will serve up videos, photos and other content to surfing fans. ASP has developed a digital service to notify fans when live coverage is available on its YouTube channel and when their favorite surfers are riding, and Facebook will help it deliver that information to them.
“We think we got the absolute best partners to launch our new global sports league,” said Michael Lynch, ASP chief marketing and revenue officer. “We felt they were the right partners to lead us forward into the future of surfing. For the fans, this is nirvana because they will see surfing go mainstream on linear television and have one global, digital home to go to for live surfing content.”
Production for both YouTube and ESPN will be provided by ASP, which has been building its own broadcast and production team to cover its events in 2014.
ASP is offering the first consolidated media rights package for all its events for the first time. In the past, surfing competitions sold media rights independently, but ZoSea Media, led by surfing agent Terry Hardy and ASP Chief Executive Paul Speaker, bought the tour last year and consolidated the rights into a single package covering all 26 of ASP’s major women’s, men’s and big wave events.
ASP is now selling TV rights in other key markets outside the U.S., including Australia, Brazil, France and Portugal. It hopes to be on TV in more than 100 countries worldwide before the start of the 2014 season, Lynch said.
For Bleacher Report’s third act, expect two major strategic themes: more integration with Turner’s televised properties and a continued effort to set the general sports news agenda.
The Turner-owned company is again in the midst of transition with the departure earlier this month of its chief executive, Brian Grey (see related story). But with a bulked-up editorial roster, digital traffic on the rise, and Turner’s key NBA and NCAA men’s basketball tournament coverage coming in the next five months, Bleacher Report is poised to assume even greater prominence.
One can now expect deep integration into Turner’s properties, particularly its televised coverage of the NBA and MLB. It is now virtually impossible to watch a TBS or TNT game of either sport and not see frequent mentions for Bleacher Report’s Team Stream mobile application. In part because of that heavy marketing, Bleacher Report’s mobile traffic has grown significantly in the past year, and Turner overall is now a mainstay in the top five among monthly comScore rankings of U.S. sports sites.
In addition, look for an enhanced effort to raise its editorial profile. Bleacher Report has made industry headlines in recent months by landing several well-regarded and experienced journalists, including Howard Beck from The New York Times, and Ric Bucher, formerly of ESPN. In addition to their primary roles as writers, many of the new hires are likely to appear on Turner’s TV properties, including NBA TV, and their work when warranted will be discussed on the network’s studio shows.
“This is a completely new phase for Bleacher Report,” Beck said recently. “The editorial mission is obviously changing. They didn’t go out and hire us to continue doing what the site has been doing. They hired us because we’re experienced journalists who can add a new level of depth and quality to the site.”
Added company founder Dave Finocchio, “We’re getting to a point where we really have a lot to offer people.”
Evidence of Bleacher Report’s elevated editorial voice can already be seen. Jared Zwerling, another of the newly added hires, recently wrote an extensive look at the forthcoming sneaker endorsement market for highly touted college basketball player Andrew Wiggins that was widely picked up by other outlets. Bleacher Report early this year also replaced Sports Illustrated as the sports section of CNN.com, in part an outgrowth of the dissolution of the online partnership between SI and Turner.
The Behind The Mic feature is sponsored by Ford, one of several top-tier brands advertising on the site.
Another newly launched video series, Bleacher Bar, is sponsored by Coors Light, and Fantasy Live is presented by State Farm.
Grey’s departure opens a third major phase for Bleacher Report. In the sports site’s early days, it was founded and run by a group of four high school friends: Finocchio, Bryan Goldberg, Dave Nemetz and Zander Freund. The four had fairly equal responsibilities, and from 2007 to 2010, the company had a quick but highly debated rise in the digital sports media landscape. Traffic and prominence grew quickly, but the site’s reliance on reader-contributed material and frequent use of slideshows were widely mocked by pundits and users.
The second act for Bleacher Report began in June 2010, when it hired Grey. A seasoned industry veteran with stops at Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports Interactive, Grey led an effort to improve the site’s editorial standards, hire experienced talent, and expand its base of top-tier advertisers. Grey oversaw a $22 million funding round, led the creation of a U.K.-based operation, and played a key role in last year’s acquisition of the company by Turner Sports for an estimated $175 million. He then stayed on for 14 months to lead the transition of Bleacher Report into a fully fledged arm of Turner.
But now begins Bleacher Report 3.0. Under a new operating structure, the company will again have a four-man operational leadership team: Finocchio, chief content and product officer; chief technology officer Sam Parnell; head of business operations Alex Vargas, who served a similar role when Turner ran PGATour.com; and chief revenue officer Rich Calacci. All four will report to Hong, who will play a more administrative role, while Calacci will also report to Greg D’Alba, president of Turner Digital ad sales and marketing.
“In some sense, Bleacher Report is really returning to its origins. Brian did a great job, but we’re not replacing him,” Hong said. “Dave, Sam, Alex and Rich will each be doing more, and in that sense, it’s going to be sort of like it was in the beginning. But what they’ll be doing is doubling down the strategy … now in place.”
Hong expects that strategy to mark an evolution of Bleacher Report brand on all fronts.
“One of the goals going forward is continue to evolve the brand,” he said. “Some good work has been done, and there is work still to be done.”
Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.
Brian Grey, having left the chief executive position at Bleacher Report earlier this month, will take at least a few months off before determining his next career step. With backgrounds in venture capital and even baseball scouting, Grey will not lack for options. But his departure was not unlike many startup acquisition situations, where the chief executive of the acquired company stays on for a while to ensure an orderly transition, and then departs.
“I am very proud to have led the rapid growth of the B/R brand, audience and relationships with advertisers that resulted in a great outcome for employees and investors,” Grey said upon departing. “I am equally proud to have led the successful integration of B/R into Turner that has made the acquisition a great investment for them. It’s the perfect time for me to hand it off to the Turner team to take it from here.”
Added a rival sports digital media executive, “Brian did a great job packaging the company for sale, getting it done, and I’m happy for him. But I’m not surprised he’s moved on and we’re now at this step.”
— Eric Fisher
Last week’s change at the top of USA Today Sports Media Group was certainly abrupt and surprising, but new President Dave Morgan said the company plans to keep up its aggressive run of new product development.
Among the specific projects underway are the creation of a dedicated mobile application for the USA Today Sports Media Group, separate from the more general, news-oriented one for USA Today; relaunching all the sites in USA Today Sports Digital Properties, including Big Lead Sports and Hoops Hype; and expanding The Q to additional sports.
“We’ve still really just scratched the surface of what we’re going to be,” said Morgan, who acknowledged his ascension to company president came as a surprise even to him. “We’ve worked hard over the past 2 1/2 years to put all these assets together and create a pipeline of new products, and we’re now poised to really fulfill our potential.”
Beusse played a key role in the formation of USA Today Sports Media Group, and was named its initial president in January 2011. But as the operating unit continued to grow rapidly, rising to a top-five position in monthly comScore reach rankings of U.S. sports sites, Beusse differed with corporate parent Gannett Co. in his view for the long-term vision for the company.
“Gannett wants to be more closely aligned with what we’re doing. And really, what’s USA Today without sports?” Morgan said. “It’s not micromanaging by any stretch, but Tom wanted more autonomy. He’s a more entrepreneurial guy, and that’s what this was when it started. We were sort of an independent entity. But we’re in a different place now, and as time goes on, it’s harder to go on without a full integration with the rest of USA Today.”
Recently, though, executives from Epix have taken a different approach. A premium TV service that launched in the fall of 2009, Epix has found as much value in sports documentaries and series as it does in live sports.
Backed by Hollywood studios Paramount/Viacom, MGM and Lionsgate, the network depends mainly on first-run movies to attract its broad audience. At its launch four years ago, it stated plans to attract sports fans through boxing matches and mixed martial arts events.
But executives say they stumbled into a strategy of pursuing sports documentaries a little more than a year after launch when it contracted IMG and producer Albie Hecht to produce a 60-minute documentary on Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. It followed that up with another Hecht-produced documentary on the NBA’s Amar’e Stoudemire. Importantly for Epix, both documentaries remained popular well after their linear TV debut. Live events have a short shelf life; people watch them only in real time. But Epix executives realized that sports documentaries have a longer shelf life, and are more popular on broadband and mobile platforms. They believe that making programming available to those platforms is key to reaching a younger audience.
“They have played really well for us — not only on the network and on demand, but on our digital platform,” said Mark Greenberg, a former HBO and Showtime executive who is Epix president and CEO. “That’s where it’s really played over and over again — with a younger audience. You have to remember, we’re on the Xbox and the iPad and the PS3 and the Roku device. What we’re doing is reaching out to the younger audience and bringing them in on storytelling.”
Epix executives would not say how many people are watching its programming. But viewership has been the service’s main problem since launch: most top distributors refuse to carry it, including Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision. In fact, sources say the service has around 10 million actual linear TV subscribers.
Those low distribution numbers represent another reason why Epix is focused on alternative forms of distribution. It still has not been able to work out deals with most of the biggest distributors.
Epix, which costs consumers about $10 a month, has deals with distributors like Dish Network, Verizon, Charter and Cox. In 2010, it signed a five-year, $1 billion deal with Netflix. Greenberg said the service is profitable thanks to these deals.
“We’re hoping to move a few of those into a better place in the next few months,” he said of negotiations with carriers. “These are really complicated deals. This isn’t like when I started at HBO in 1981. Here’s my content; here’s my price; let’s do a deal. They are technology deals today. It’s much more complicated. Sports will be a much more integral part of what we do.”
Epix believes that making nonlive sports programming available on different devices will help it attract a passionate, younger audience that will convince distributors to cut a deal.
“In the last 24 months, we’ve really gotten more aggressive in the whole space of sports documentaries,” Greenberg said.
In July, it partnered with Ross Greenburg, former head of HBO Sports, to do a documentary on Dwight Howard. Epix also greenlit another Greenburg documentary on the integration of the NFL called “Football’s Forgotten Heroes,” which tells the story of four African-American players who broke the league’s color barrier in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the MLB Dodgers.
Another former HBO Sports president, Seth Abraham, has signed on to produce a series for Epix with New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden. The series is made up of in-depth interviews with sports stars like Oscar De La Hoya. Rhoden does not appear on camera.
Last week, Epix debuted “The Price of College Sports,” based on a book by Taylor Branch called “The Cartel.” The documentary advocates for college athletes to get paid, and Greenberg hopes it will have an impact on that discussion.
“We’re continuing to expand on our documentary franchise,” Greenberg said. “At some point, we’ll probably get into the series business. We’re constantly looking at live sports programming where we think that’s available. It’s a matter of what’s appropriate for pay TV.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.