Sports Illustrated who? Turner's $175 million acquisition of Bleacher Report happened way back in August after the company parted ways with SI; now, its partnership with CNN cemented earlier this month, the digital sports property will begin working with the news network on televised content starting with Super Bowl XLVII. The first show? Kickoff in New Orleans: A CNN-Bleacher Report Special , co-hosted with Turner Sports vet Ernie Johnson by the network's most recent sports desk hire, former ESPNer Rachel Nichols and sponsored on-air by BlackRock and Hampton Inn, who will also sponsor all lead-up coverage to the Bowl. HLN has sold Super Bowl hits across Morning Express, News Now and Weekend Express to TripIt.
David Levy, Turner's president of sales, distribution and sports, told Adweek that the special was "a major step forward in the integration process" for the two brands. Nichols, too, will be a key player for the network's sports coverage going forward.
New network head Jeff Zucker brought on several high-profile folks in the last month (and saw several who didn't fit in to the new regime hit the road yesterday), and he's wasted no time in making it clear what he wants to do. The Bleacher Report isn't his doing, but it seems to fit in well. The site been controversial among sports fans: on the one hand, vocal fans hate the idea of the site's largely crowdsourced content replacing the expertise of career journalists; on the other, ComScore puts BleacherReport.com at 11.45 million uniques for the month of December, up from 10.6 million in July, just before the acquisition, and up 24 percent year-on-year. CNN probably doesn't want to argue with that kind of reach and growth right now.
"SI just had a different mindset at the time," said Levy. "Their mindset was really on more long, story-focused articles, in-depth investigations, and really tying back to the magazine; we're really more about short video content, highlights, fan relationships, and [Bleacher Report app] TeamStream." Levy said he didn't want to compare selling the one to the other, but he said he figured everyone involved was happy with the change. "The philosophies were sort of different, which is why Bleacher Report had much better ideas and directions based on where Turner wanted to go in that space."
The pre-Bowl special is sold out, as is the whole Super Bowl weekend, Levy said. The special will include contributions from Howie Long and Cris Collinsworth, footage featuring Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, and an interview with a 9-year-old pee-wee football player who's made a splash on YouTube. SI is still CNN's corporate sibling, technically, but it looks like their sole contribution will be swimsuit model Demaris Lewis co-hosting a fan's guide to the Big Easy.
But will there be friction between a news outfit like CNN that has long regarded itself as the last bastion of hard journalism on cable, and a group like Bleacher Report that invents the rules as it goes along? "I think we can live in both worlds pretty easily," said Levy, citing some of the established sportswriters the site has hired to boost its cred. "There's not a real standard answer; I think Bleacher Report has fans and reporters and editorial guidelines just like everybody else has. Who will actually do the reporting? To be determined. But I challenge people to question their preconceptions."