SBJ/Oct. 21-27, 2013/Media

Bleacher Report enters another new phase

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.

“We’re looking forward to really expanding the scale and scope of what Bleacher Report is,” said Matt Hong, Turner Sports senior vice president. “And it’s not a one-way street either. We think Bleacher Report will help enhance what we’re doing with our other properties.”

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.

Such hires would likely have been unthinkable for Bleacher Report even 12 to 18 months ago. Hong declined to specify how many more such hires could be coming. But the general idea is to make the site more of an in-demand destination for top-flight talent.

“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.
Bleacher Report has also sought to develop regular content features on its site, such as its Behind The Mic video series. The feature, sponsored by Ford, has been part of a sponsor run-up on the site that has attracted other top-tier brands such as Nike, Visa, Bose, and Pepsi Max, among others, in recent months.

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.

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