What Australian brands can learn from a US sports media success story

From resisting low-hanging fruit to empowering its journalists to explore the controversial, sports publisher Bleacher Report is setting the bar for honest growth and sincere customer engagement, says Kate Dinon.

Kate Dinon 150 BWEarlier this month saw the fifth running of the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City. Featuring everyone from Kanye West talking about the success of Yeezy, through to office tours at Bloomberg and The Body Shop.

Somewhat surprisingly, I gained the most insight from the session at Bleacher Report’s HQ on Broadway in Midtown within the WarnerMedia building (owner of Bleacher Report). For those unfamiliar with Bleacher Report, it is a global digital destination for sports and culture-focused content.

Given I learned the most last year at the Nike session, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. Sport has truly intertwined with other elements of popular culture in the US, definitely more than we see in Australia. It also has a huge appeal with Gen Z, and in recent times has been at the forefront of social issues – be it Black Lives Matter in the NFL, China relations with the NBA or equal pay for women with the US Women’s Soccer team.

Relatively new CEO Howard Mittman, a softly spoken and self-deprecating 45 year-old New Yorker, gave a refreshingly honest talk about how Bleacher Report plans to go from a publishing app to a platform over the next 18 to 36 months.

Bleacher will integrate its live sports coverage (as rights holder of NBA League Pass games, 65 NCAA championship events, the PGA and UEFA Champions League football), and introduce new features to the app to complement the existing athlete AMA (ask me anything) sessions, ecommerce where it will drop limited edition collaborations and its own in-house produced programming including House of Highlights.

Bleacher will also integrate live betting (once legal), and alerts and notifications. Its sports alerts are already the fastest in the industry, regularly beating its main competitor ESPN by a full two minutes, with Mittman saying that in publishing, “speed is everything, just like in sports”.

Already, the Bleacher Report app has 20 million downloads, and fans open the app 4.5 times per day. As Mittman states, “these are platform-like numbers”. On the content side, NBA star Dwayne Wade will soon join as creative director, and its main on-air talent includes Charles Barkley and a host of former pro athletes.

What struck me most was Mittman’s commitment to the mission and to a strong set of values. Bleacher Report’s mission is to make it as easy as possible to be a sports fan. It measure its success by one standout metric: engagement. On that front, it is incredibly successful: Bleacher Report is the second-most engaged account on Twitter (after Trump), and both Bleacher Report and House of Highlights are in the top five Instagram accounts for engagement.

Mittman was most animated when it came to talking about values – addressing the recent controversy with the NBA in China and also about his reluctance to post base social videos (think spring break), even though the reach and engagement would be huge, his view was clear, saying, “you gotta leave the easy money on the table if it means compromising your values”.

ESPN forbade its writers from covering the recent China NBA issue. Bleacher Report said “go for it, you are journalists and you have to speak your truth.” Mittman did this with the full support of Lenny Daniels (head of sport) and Jeff Zucker (head of news) and cited this as an example of thrusting your brand into sensitive areas, something Gen Z consumers expect of brands today.

Wrapping up, Mittman explained that consumers want brands that reflect them, saying successful brands do two things: tell stories that don’t exclude anyone and relate to the real world. Bleacher Report is definitely kicking goals on these two fronts.

Kate Dinon is managing director at Character + Distinction

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Image credit:Keith Johnston