This post, compiled by Columbia student Kelly Carroll, is another in a series from the Columbia University Sports Podcast, a 360-degree view of the sports business from the people leading it. Each podcast is approximately 35–45 minutes in length, and features industry insiders from all aspects of the business—from brand executives to startup founders to former MLB players—all talking about their work, the current state of the sports industry, and, more importantly, the future of the field.
Earlier this year, just after Rory Brown was named president of Bleacher Report, he spoke to Tom Richardson about the company’s meteoric growth, and how Bleacher Report continues to reinvent itself as content creation and consumption evolves.
Employee #12: Founded just under a decade ago, Bleacher Report grew out of a small team that was passionate about sports and media. Brown, working as a writer for a newspaper publishing company in the Bay Area in 2008, applied for a job at Bleacher Report via a post he found on Craigslist—when he was eventually hired, he was the 12th employee on the team. During the past eight years, Brown has served in several different roles at Bleacher Report, including chief content officer. Now steering the ship for one of the world’s media leaders—the company had 176,600 unique global views from May 31 to June 29, according to Quantcast—he easily remembers the days when the company’s future outlook didn’t go past a year. “The days when we were at a couple thousand people an hour aren’t that far away,” he says.
“We like to pivot:” As the company has grown, Brown says the mission has changed a bit, too. When it was first founded, Bleacher Report strove to cover every team and every topic—to give every niche audience the content mainstream media would not. That approach grew the company’s audience as the media world morphed into a realm where content was “becoming cool again.” As leagues, teams, and players started to take the reins in content creation, Bleacher Report decided to focus less on user generated content and more on creating content of the highest caliber. The site lost traffic, but Brown calls the move one of the smartest decisions the company has made, because it expanded the influence of the brand. “Our goal is to create best-in-class content aimed at the next generation of sports fans,” he says.
Go where the audience is: Growth trends in mobile traffic led the Bleacher Report team to develop the company’s app, Team Stream. At the time an uncharted move for Bleacher Report, Brown emphasizes the company’s belief that content creators need to “go where the audience is.” This motto has informed many of Bleacher Report’s decisions when it comes to digital and social media. In a “battle for the second screen,” Brown says his company competes with not only ESPN, but Netflix, Amazon, and anywhere else people are consuming content. A user’s time, he adds, is the new currency.
Win the moments: Brown also notes that Bleacher Report is never afraid to create content that users consume on another platform. Despite the fact that it’s difficult to monetize (if you can do it at all), he’s aware that the majority of people are using social media platforms to get their news, updates, highlights, photos, and videos. The challenge, then, is to “win the moments,” which is the goal of Bleacher Report’s social media team. “If something really awesome, or funny, or unusual happens, the group decides what kind of content they’ll create around that moment,” Brown explains. “It’s going to be what people are talking about the following day.” The Team Stream app works in the opposite direction, sending millions of visitors to competitor content. According to Brown, that’s a win too, because it makes Team Stream everyone’s “home base.”
Content Uninterrupted: With the amount of athlete-driven content continuing to rise, Bleacher Report saw an opportunity to create a platform dedicated to it. The result of a partnership between Bleacher Report and LeBron James, Uninterrupted has become a place where athletes have a chance to talk outside of a courtside or press conference setting. “You get the whole message from the athletes,” says Brown. “You’re not getting the 20-second sound bite that can be taken out of context.” Brown adds that the challenge in producing athlete-driven content is in striking the right balance: Some athletes are an open book, some less so. The content needs to be authentic, as well, for the audience to buy in. “The initiative is going to be as good as the content,” Brown says.
Beyond Sports: Though Bleacher Report is so sports-focused, Brown says the company looks to many other global media outlets for inspiration. For example, he admires the ability of The New York Times to expand its visual storytelling in a variety of ways, from artistic one-off stories to data-driven content. In fact, Bleacher Report hired the newspaper’s digital design editor last year and appointed him creative director. In the media world, Brown says, it’s important to see how other publishers outside of sports are reinventing content creation. “Sports often lags behind the competition, because sports has the luxury of the live events—that people still care very much about watching live,” he notes.
These were just some of the topics Rory Brown discussed with Tom. The entire podcast, number six in the series, can be heard here.