Bleacher Report has a lingering reputation in the media world—fair or not—that it's the Demand Media of sports. Lots of search optimized listicles and link bait written by pretty much anybody with a laptop and an opinion about the Jets QB situation.
But since being acquired by Turner about a year ago, the company has sought to reshape that reputation, particularly by building out video franchises. Starting on Sunday, Bleacher will launch Fantasy Live, a weekly half-hour series during which host Josh Zerkle will break down key NFL matchups for fantasy football fans. That show is sponsored by State Farm.
Fantasy Live is one of several new or returning Web series franchises that Bleacher is rolling out around the start of the NFL season (which kicks off tonight). Another new show is Bleacher Bar (sponsored by Coors Light), a pigskin-themed series featuring Mike Freeman, former longtime CBS columnist.
Among the returning Bleacher originals are Fantasize Me, another fantasy-themed show hosted by Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb, and Behind the Mic, which takes fans inside the production of big sports events like the Final Four. Fantasize Me is co-sponsored by Ram Trucks and Old Spice, while Ford is sponsoring Behind the Mic.
There’s a clear pattern here. Bleacher is turning to more professional talent, upping its production values (using a new Turner-built studio in New York) and churning more appointment TV-esque Web shows—in hopes of building a more loyal fan base and attracting top advertisers. The overarching effect here is to distance the company from its content farm image of the recent past.
“The entire profile of site has changed a lot in two years,” said Dave Finocchio, founder and chief content and product officer of Bleacher and vp of Turner Sports. "It started by bringing in more recognizable talent."
Finocchio noted that two years ago, 45-50 percent of Bleacher’s traffic was search-driven. Now more than 50 percent of traffic is direct, and search under 20 percent.
“We want to build predicitability around video franchises,” he said. “We want you to know you are going to get Fantazise Me every single week. We’re doing a live fantasy show in way our competitors are unwilling or unable to do. You'll see us very much continue to invest in premium talent.
We feel strongly that not everyone on the Bleacher platform is best suited for video. It’s a different skill set. Not everyone can do both."
Bleacher Report believes that its strategy evolution was validated in April when the company cranked out hours of live coverage during the NFL draft over a two-day period. “That’s something we would never contemplated a year ago," said Rich Calacci, svp, Turner digital ad sales. "Only people who are pros can do that. That could never be done with UGC. And we saw huge traffic numbers."
Traffic-wise, something is working. Bleacher enjoyed its biggest month ever in July, reaching 22 million uniques, per comScore, accounting for a whopping 1 billion minutes of time spent across platforms. During the week of Aug 27 the site generated over 2 million streams, up 112 percent versus the same period last year, per comScore.
Beside video, mobile has been a big emphasis of late. Bleacher’s Team Stream fantasy app, which purports to provide fans with the most current information on their fantasy rosters from sources across the Web, rolled out in August with McDonald’s as a sponsor. “We think that is a real differentiator,” said Finocchio.
Among the other brands that Bleacher has attracted under Turner are Bose, Campbell’s, Enterprise, Jack Daniel's, Nike, Pepsi Max and Visa. Either advertisers don’t have the same hangups about Bleacher’s once wide- open content platform or they're drawn to the company’s move toward more professionals.
That said, Bleacher Report isn’t planning to shut out the masses. "We just hired this kid from the University of Alabama who worked on the school paper," said Finocchio. "He's wildly talently kid. We are still looking for people like that. We’re still all about giving young talent a chance."