By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Last year, sportswriter King Kaufman stepped up to the lectern at a symposium held on the Google campus. In a 14-year haul at Salon.com, Kaufman earned a reputation as one of the best and most cerebral sports journalists on the Internet. But his subject that day was his new job, improving the content quality at Bleacher Report — an outfit with a reputation almost directly opposite Kaufman's own.
The San Francisco-based site is an aggressively growing online giant, tapping the oceanic labor pool of thousands of unpaid sports fanatics typing on thousands of keyboards. Launched in 2008, Bleacher Report meteorically rose to become one of the nation's most popular websites, and one of the three most-visited sports sites. Its dramatic success came via valuing site growth and pageviews over any semblance of journalistic "quality" or even readability. Operating a sports website on a supply-and-demand model turns out just as one would expect: High-trafficking Bleacher Report articles include "25 Wardrobe Malfunctions in Sports," "The 20 Biggest Criers in Sports," and "10 Possible Tiger Woods Porn Spin-offs: Mistress Edition." The site quickly earned a rep for expertly employing the Google search engine to inundate the web with horrible, lowest-common-denominator crap.
"A lot of what Bleacher Report has done has been lowest-common-denominator crap, and horrible," Kaufman admitted to the audience. His task was to alter this perception of the company. But this was not due to any sense of embarrassment or a late-night visit to the site's brass by the Ghost of Journalistic Standards Past. Like almost every move the company makes, this was a business decision. And a smart one.
"This was not a decision made by the CEO, who got tired of his friends saying at parties, 'Boy, Bleacher Report is terrible,'" Kaufman continued. "Bleacher Report reached a point where it couldn't make the next level of deal, where whatever company says 'We're not putting our logo next to yours because you're publishing crap.' OK, that's the market speaking."
Several thousand miles away, Bleacher Report's hiring of Kaufman and a platoon of professional writers — but continued reliance upon an unpaid cast of thousands — was interpreted differently. During a meeting in New York City, an executive at one of the nation's largest sports media companies quipped that Bleacher Report's new strategy was akin to spritzing a little room deodorizer after leaving a steaming deposit in the toilet and failing to flush. An attendee recalls everyone laughing uproariously.
In August of this year, Turner Broadcasting announced it was quite willing to put its logo next to Bleacher Report's, scooping up the website for a purported $200 million. Bleacher Report has joined the Huffington Post in the exclusive club of web properties converting free, crowd-sourced content into nine-digit paydays. The transaction was not just a valuation, but a validation.
"Information has become more important than the source of information," says Michael Hall, director of new media for the New England Sports Network. In today's world, information is money — and few move information faster or more efficiently than Bleacher Report and its roughly 6,000 contributors. "They understand, probably better than any media outlet today, the exact value generated for them for every monthly unique visitor, every pageview served," Hall continues. "They understand that revenue impact better than anyone out there. Better than we do."
Every media entity questioning the wisdom of throwing down $200 million for Bleacher Report, notes Hall, is already co-opting the tricks mastered by Bleacher Report. "It's here to stay," he adds, "because it's what people want."
No one is laughing anymore.
There's no single narrative to encapsulate the ascent of Bleacher Report, a site that churns out around 800 articles a day penned by 2,000 "core contributors." The site is as polarizing as it is popular. And it is very popular. In August, some 14.2 million users visited it. Astronomical pageview numbers have translated into loads of advertising revenue — media reports peg the site as on pace to gross $30 million to $40 million this year.
It could be argued that Bleacher Report's success is a 21st-century iteration of the American Dream. Four twentysomething sports nuts, friends since they attended the elite Menlo School in Atherton, quit their jobs in 2007 to found a sports website written by the fans, for the fans. In doing so, they harnessed the energy of the legions of sports enthusiasts who would have otherwise been yammering on call-in radio or laboring on obscure blogs and message boards, and bundled the labor into a platform that could be backed by advertising dollars.
The site's deft use of search engine optimization (SEO) — the tweaking of content and coding to increase online visibility — propelled its amateur writers' fare to the top of Google's search engine results, placing it on equal footing with original work created by established journalistic outlets. It's a rare sports-related Google search that doesn't feature a Bleacher Report article among the top results. And once readers click onto Bleacher Report, they stick there — visitors are besieged with applications to subscribe to team-specific newsletters or mobile applications, or drawn into click-happy slideshows, polls, or other user-engaging devices that rack up massive pageviews per visit (to date, a slideshow titled "The 20 Most Boobtastic Athletes of All Time" has amassed 1.4 million views).