While much of sports media is in turmoil, with the implosion of both legacy (Sports Illustrated) and digital brands (Deadspin), one sports-media startup has quietly been amassing hundreds of millions of viewers in less than two years, via the social-media platforms TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.
Meet Wave, which operates about 130 different channels, ranging from highlights to profiles that are sport-, team-, or player-specific. Together, since July they’ve generated more than two billion views per month from its over 38 million followers. The content ranges from edited highlights to skill videos submitted by athletes of all stripes to jokey sports-related stunts.
Its ambition: No less than using social media to become SportsCenter for the Gen Z audience.
“Our initial thesis was that there was this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build these brands at the intersection of sports and entertainment, across the digital platforms that young people would think of today as television,” says cofounder Brian Verne, who started the company with Ishaan Sutaria. “We started with a very strong presence on Instagram and expanded into Facebook, Snap, and TikTok. And we’ll continue to expand that to more platforms.”
The distributed media network
This model, known as a distributed media network, isn’t based on cable or TV but a variety of social platforms. Overtime and Bleacher Report’s House of Highlights have built similarly strong audiences this way, focusing on high school athletes and basketball fans, respectively. Wave, which might be more akin to NowThisNews for sports, takes things a few steps further, establishing channels for almost any athletic interest and then just flooding the zone with content. Its view count went from one billion in March to more than two billion by the end of summer. Brand partners so far include Budweiser, Universal Music, Hulu, SiriusXM, and Body Armor. Wave has content deals with Major League Baseball, MLB Players Association, FIBA, and more. In April, the company hired former BuzzFeed chief revenue officer Andy Wiedlin to be its chief business officer.
Sutaria says the company’s business right now is primarily built on a traditional advertising model. “We’re a profitable business at this point, and that’s because we do enough viewership that we have the ability to monetize, whether it’s through the platforms programmatically or directly with classic sports advertisers,” says Sutaria.
So where does all the content these millions of people are watching come from? Wave collects and curates its content from a global network of contributors, a mix of paid creators and athletes submitting content for their own promotion. The company produces upwards of 750 pieces of content a day. “We put up a piece of content about some 14-year-old football star, and this contributor will go from having 15,000 followers to 50,000 in two days,” says Verne. “The benefit for them is visible brand building, creating awareness from a wider audience, whether it’s fans, football coaches, or brands.”
But Wave’s own small newsroom creates its own content as well, with 30 full-time editors (up from 10 at the start of the year) and about 150 paid contributors. Just like its audience, Wave’s newsroom skews young. For example, Brad Stainbrook is an 18-year-old high schooler who also happens to be Wave’s Cleveland content lead. This summer, the company partnered with both MLB and MLB Players Association to create original content around the All-Star Game that spanned clips on baseball history, behind-the-scenes interviews with players, and game-day action.
The Achilles of any distributed network is the reliance on the platforms used for that distribution, with success or failure determined by the whims of Facebook, Instagram, or Snap’s algorithm. This obviously puts pressure on them to stay ahead and invest early in emerging platforms and talent in order to be ready for changes in existing platforms. Wave launched on TikTok in August and now have one million followers across its properties there. If that platform somehow goes away, Verne and Sutaria bet that another will take its place soon after. The key is keeping Wave’s model of providing creative, timely, and fun content agile enough to find its audience on whichever platform they’re using.
One place where Wave has seen particular success has been Snapchat. Snap’s head of content Sean Mills says that Wave has been an excellent partner, one that embraces being at the forefront of innovation, constantly learning from their audience, and always willing to try new strategies in order to deliver the most engaging content. “Wave is able to take sports that used to be considered more niche, such as parkour and gymnastics, and find a way to make them appealing to Snapchat’s broader audience,” says Mills. “Their coverage of the fitness space is a great example of this. By leveraging editorialized clips of gym life along with captions that speak to Gen Z, Wave has turned the fitness genre into a big-tent offering for us.”
The next step is making products that will push its massive follower count to make the jump from viewers to customers. “We think of it as a race to win the attention economy, so we’re building all of these brands that are ubiquitous across all these platforms where people are spending all of their time,” says Verne. “This attention can expand both horizontally, integrating shows that you can license out to other platforms, but probably more important, I think of it expanding to creating direct-to-consumer lines of businesses—both products and events. Combine that with a healthy advertising-based business and it becomes really, really compelling.”