SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Since its launch in 2008 after two years of development and beta testing, Bleacher Report has become a major player in online sports media. A unique combination of social networking and sports reporting, the Web site attracts a rapidly growing audience of about sixteen million unique visitors a month, according to the company. It provides Web content to partners like The Los Angeles Times, the NHL, and Hearst Newspapers, each of whom host Bleacher Report articles on their sites and split ad revenues from the articles 50/50. On Dec 20, 2010, Bleacher Report announced $10.5 million in Series C venture capital, just as the site passed CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated to become Comscore’s fifth most heavily trafficked sports Web site. A “lean, scrappy startup,” according to CEO Brian Grey, the Report has about thirty employees who are split roughly evenly between editing, web development, and business roles.
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Bleacher Report couldn’t satiate its millions of readers were it not for about 3,000 unpaid contributors, including a dedicated core of 700 “featured writers.” These 3,000 writers churn out about 500 articles a day. (An underlying premise of the site is that sports fans are knowledgeable enough to write about their teams and avid enough to keep reading about them.)
“There seems to be a void in the sports world,” Grey says. “It lacks the breadth and depth of specific content that fans demand.” Grey believes that traditional journalists can’t keep up with that demand. The dual role of Bleacher Report, then, is to both satisfy the appetite for content among sports fans and to satisfy fans’ desire to be heard. “This week, there won’t be a lot of articles written about the BYU Cougars. Fans of the team still want to read about them and discuss them. We’re creating a platform for passionate fans to share their opinions and build their brands,” he says.
Bleacher Report’s previous system encouraged “open source editing” of articles, similar to Wikipedia (although writers can overrule edits, and only some users were registered as editors). They recently ended that program, purged their list of writers, and invited them to reapply with clips of their work. Now the flow of articles must squeeze through freelance copyeditors, in house copy-editors, or trained interns. The editors arrive for work when statistics predict a rush of articles. Computers sort the queue of unedited articles so that articles by dedicated writers about popular teams reach editors first.
Much of the way that Bleacher Report functions is premised on the idea that data can improve the profitability of writing. The site sends out roughly a million fan newsletters with articles about various teams. “[Newsletters] give us the opportunity to see what people click on and what they don’t at a team level,” Grey says. “We see how the Philadelphia Eagles fan base differs from the Oakland Raiders fan base in terms of the kind of content they find interesting.”
Editors use this data to suggest articles to contributors and partners, although writers can cover any sports-related topic of their choosing. Writers, who must build profiles to publish and comment on the site, earn “reputation” levels and collect virtual medals for popular articles. Basic guidelines for writers sometimes seem to draw from ad copywriter style books, and a regularly updated list of “hot keywords” arms them with current search engine trends. Search engine optimized headlines like “Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears Could Hand Steelers Home Field Throughout” permeate the site.
It’s clear that Bleacher Report is poised to grow. The site invested in an ad sales team early in 2010, and, according to Grey, they have done well. Former Associated Content CEO Patrick Keane recently joined the board of directors, and the company scored a major coup in hiring Grey. (He was the first GM of Yahoo! Sports and later worked for Fox Sports Interactive, two of Bleacher Report’s main competitors.)
Grey sees the demand for sports analysis as vast enough to sustain continued expansion, and to anyone who’s ever seen a child go to bed wearing a hockey helmet, it’s understandable why Grey might think sports fans can’t get enough. “We’re based in Silicon Valley,” he says. “We’re relying on the scalability of our publishing platform.” One of the main plans for that $10.5 million is to invest in scalability. If you don’t know a Bleacher Report writer yet, you probably will soon.
Bleacher Report Data
Name: Bleacher Report
City: San Francisco, Calif., with sales office in New York, N.Y.
Revenue Sources, other: Venture capital: roughly $18 million in investments from Crosslink Capital, Hillsven Capital, Gordon Crawford, and SoftTech VC, among others.
Principal Staff: Brian Grey, CEO; Dave Finocchio, co-founder and VP of content; Dave Nemetz, co-founder and VP of Business Development; Bryan Goldberg, co-founder and VP of marketing and business operations.
CMS: Ruby on Rails