Back in December, we spotlighted Bleacher Report’s 2014 growth as the third-most notable sports media story of the year, and it looks like the site’s dramatic growth is continuing. Turner announced this week that B/R pulled in 8.8 million unique visitors Monday, a single-day record. Monday also saw the site receive over 12.7 million total visits, their second-highest number ever in that category. Much of that bump is likely thanks to interest in college football stories ahead of and during the first-ever CFP national championship game (which set television records for ESPN), but Turner also cites NFL and NBA stories as key factors. What stories did so well for them, though, and what does that tell us about where B/R is at?
The three sports spotlighted here are interesting, as B/R’s taken significantly different approaches to their content in each. On the NBA front, they have a lot of high-profile former mainstream media journalists such as Howard Beck, Ethan Skolnick and Kevin Ding leading the way. Their top college football writers, such as Adam Kramer, Barrett Sallee and Ben Kercheval, tend to be more known for what they’ve written online. The NFL side of B/R is a mix of the two approaches, combining former mainstream journalists like Mike Freeman and Dan Pompei with internet names like Mike Tanier, Michael Schottey and Ty Schalter.
Background doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of anyone’s work, but it’s notable that B/R found so much success in college football, an area where they haven’t made as many big splashy hires from the mainstream ranks. Perhaps that suggests there are plenty of great writers who didn’t work their way up through the conventional media, or perhaps it suggests that the B/R audience cares more about stories than bylines. The counterargument is that perhaps having big names like Beck and Freeman allows the NBA and NFL sections to draw substantial traffic even when it’s not the biggest day of the year for those sports. There probably isn’t enough data here for a conclusion about B/R’s approach to one sport or another being superior; this does suggest that they can find success with multiple paths, though, not just splashy mainstream hires.
What about the actual stories they’re doing? B/R has received substantial outside praise for improving the quality of their journalism and shifting away from the often ill-informed rankings, slideshows and “cookie-cutter writing” that drew lots of criticism for them in the past, but are the insightful pieces pulling in the traffic? B/R’s site is quite helpful here, as each piece comes with stats on how many times it’s been read. Digging up data from Monday is difficult given how many pieces have been posted since then, but the analytics for Tuesday’s stories are quite interesting. Kramer’s long, thoughtful piece on Ohio State’s win from the #4 seed with their third-string quarterback and what that means notched 201,000 reads, but similar analysis pieces from Sallee and Greg Couch (on the case for Braxton Miller to transfer to Oregon and the Urban Meyer-Nick Saban comparisons, respectively) each drew under 50,000 reads. Meanwhile, trending NCAA pieces were strong. Dan Carson, who specializes in those (to the extent of being titled as B/R’s “Trending Lead Writer” pulled in 371,000 for a piece on J.T. Barrett looking unhappy and 62,000 for a piece on Meyer’s promise to get a tattoo.
By comparison on the NFL and NBA sides, Freeman’s Jan. 10 column on Tom Brady has 181,000 reads, Beck’s Jan. 6 piece on Phil Jackson blowing up the Knicks’ roster has 268,000 and Ding’s Jan. 8 piece on the Clippers and Lakers rivalry has 54,000. More trending pieces from Carson appear here too; his piece on Pat McAfee blasting ESPN has 115,000 reads, and his piece on Nike’s plans for self-tying basketball shoes has 157,000.
What’s the overall takeaway here? Well, it looks like B/R’s traffic is coming from a mixture of unique analysis (both from high-profile former mainstream writers) and more typical trending stories. That’s not an indictment of B/R; every online-only sports site (and most newspapers as well) gets strong traffic from trending pieces. In fact, one of the more notable conclusions from the traffic data above is that B/R is getting a substantial amount of traffic for analysis that isn’t particularly trend-focused or “cookie-cutter”, such as the aforementioned pieces from Kramer, Beck and Freeman. Moreover, having seasoned mainstream journalists like Freeman and Beck on board definitely helps with the overall perception of the site. It’s interesting to note that the college football side seems to be doing just fine without a similar big-name mainstream hire, though.
Another element that will be notable to follow going forward is what B/R does under its new management structure. Back in December, Turner announced that general manager Dave Finocchio (the only original founder still with the company, who spoke to AA in 2013 about the site’s post-Turner evolution) and chief product officer Sam Parnell would be moving to a new strategic advisory board, while VP of programming, analytics and quality control Dorth Raphaely would be elevated to general manager and VP of content operations Rory Brown would be named chief content officer. What that will actually mean for the site is up for debate, but it’s clear B/R has been finding plenty of success recently under its current strategies. According to Turner’s most recent release, it hit #2 amongst non-league sports sites for the first time in 2014 and held that position for the majority of the year. Monday’s record traffic day could also help towards breaking a monthly traffic record (the current record appears to be August 2014’s 45.9 million uniques). At the moment, it looks like B/R’s pursuing a lot of different approaches to success, from original analysis to trending pieces, and from hiring big-name journalists to developing those more known for their internet work. We’ll see if they focus in on one particular strategy going forward or if they continue with their multiple approaches.