In 2009, the then-fledgling sports website Bleacher Report did something smart: It looked at some data. It was late October, football season was well underway, but the end was nowhere in sight. Still, Google told them something interesting: People were already searching for the NFL draft, which was months away.
At first, this made little sense–why would people care about something so far away? Upon further examination, it made some sense: Fans who knew their teams were destined to lose were already thinking about what could possibly happen to make the team better next season. This got Bleacher Report thinking, said Rory Brown–the company’s president–that maybe the company could begin anticipating these trends.
Whether it was a bellwether or a watershed moment, this idea helped define what Bleacher Report would ultimately become: The main destination for millennial sports lovers, with more than 45 million unique U.S. visitors a month, according to comScore, alongside a voracious and growing social following. Across all of its platforms, Bleacher says it reaches 250 million people each month.
At the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week, Brown and the company’s content team opened up their Manhattan offices and discussed the work they do. One mandate that animates that work on a daily basis: They must differentiate themselves from ESPN.
The Disney-owned sports giant “came to power at a moment when the only important thing were news and rights,” said Brown. “The way we view it, it’s not about that live video … there’s no exclusivity on news.”
Brown–and Bleacher Report as a whole–saw the chance to jump on an as-of-yet untapped opportunity: bespoke social content that spoke directly with viewers. Bleacher Report could target sports highlights and react authentically. “Why write a 700-word article,” asked Brown, when the publication can engage with its audience in other quicker ways?
Bleacher Report‘s executive editor Jermaine Spradley put it like this: “ESPN is about the news of sports; we’re about the spirit of sports.”
The 10-year-old company—which was acquired by Time Warner for over $200 million in 2012—has built out a huge editorial team based on this ethos. There’s a production staff whose entire role is looking at the data and figuring out what content will resonate in the coming months. This predictive effort, said Spradley, is able to deduce “the moments we know will matter,” and spend months building programming in anticipation.
In essence, what Bleacher Report was able to do over the last decade was understand the power of social and use that as a way to reach the younger generation of sports lovers. “[Other companies] don’t put that much effort into making [social] great,” said Spradley, “That’s why Bleacher Report matters so much to millennials.”
That ability to ride social waves is as much about figuring out the content as it is understanding how to distribute it. Back in 2009, Google was the main way people sought out digital content. That content search has since spread to other platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and, increasingly, Snapchat. Bleacher Report‘s success hinges on understanding these shifts in engagement and following the young eyeballs. Earlier this year, the company launched a channel on Snapchat Discover; that team has since ballooned to 10 employees. Bleacher Report is also dabbling in other media, with various scripted and unscripted long-form video projects.
This all encompasses Bleacher Report‘s plan to provide a different kind of sports content, much in the way that millennials are different from Gen-Xers. When Brown was growing up, he said, he would watch SportsCenter. “Now, we wake up and look at our phones.” While ESPN still garners sports rights and exclusives, Bleacher Report continues to ignore that strategy in the name of audience building.
“We capitalize on sports culture,” said Brown. As Spradley put it, “it’s our goal to be the most important brand to millennials.”
Updated to include a more accurate acquisition number.