In a recent Recode Media podcast with Peter Kafka, Bleacher Report CEO Dave Finocchio (seen above) had a whole lot to say about the state of digital sports media in general and about his own company in particular. But it’s Finocchio’s thoughts on Barstool Sports that perhaps particularly stand out.
The key part of that conversation comes around 45:30, where Kafka asks Finocchio directly about Barstool (which had previously been mentioned as a newer sports media company), saying “You’ve mentioned at least once Barstool, they’re the new kids. What do you think of them?”
“I honestly mostly root for them,” Finocchio says. “I think they’re one of the few examples of a brand-first company that’s kind of emerged in the space. Most of us were audience-first and then we built our brands on the backside of that.” Kafka asks “What does being brand-first mean?” and Finocchio responds “Brand-first means that their audience isn’t that big, but their users are incredibly passionate about the brand, so the brand outpunches its weight relative to how many people actually consume the content. People who love Barstool really, really love Barstool. I’m interested to see what they do. I met with Erika [Barstool CEO Erika Nardini] pretty recently, and I just think their setup’s great. They have these crazy content people over here, and they brought in a very professional business development leader who has credibility everywhere.”
“And is not a dude, which helps,” Kafka adds, and Finocchio responds “Yeah, I thought that was brilliant. And she seems like a great person.”
Kafka then says “And to spell this out, right, because the idea is they’re edgy, right, that’s the professional way we describe them.” Finocchio responds “Yeah, like you wouldn’t say misogynistic or whatever other words we could call them. It will be interesting to see…I’m curious…if they decide to push more chips into the advertising business, we need to clean the content up. If they do that, they risk losing some of the attachment to their audience.” Kafka says “They have an audience loves them particularly because they’re not ESPN, but also because they’re not you guys, or they’re not SB Nation.”
To which Finocchio responds, “Yeah, they’re not politically correct. They’re definitely more, it feels to me like, white males who want to join a country club. They’re never going to be as big as we are because we work very hard to be inclusive and we don’t offend people. They purposely offend people and that’s what they do, but a lot of people love that. So whatever.”
Finocchio then talks about Barstool’s revenue possibilities and what he sees their content as, saying “I’m curious if they decide to go down more of a Howard Stern type of route and just say ‘We don’t care, we’re going to monetize our audience through other means. People love us so much they’ll eventually pay us some sort of subscription fee, somehow, some way. We’ll get people to show up for events, we’ll do e-commerce at a pretty decent scale.’ So I’m not sure. And to say Barstool Sports, it’s not really sports, right? It’s more fraternity content. Sometimes it’s around the culture of sports, but they’re not covering sports news the same way that ESPN or Bleacher Report covers sports news.”
Kafka says “They’re in the sports universe,” and Finocchio responds “They’re in the sports universe, but I don’t know, it’s something different.”
There are parts of that that are offering Barstool at least relative praise, but there’s also a lot of interesting downplaying of the company there, especially with the “they’re never going to be as big as we are” comments. It’s certainly possible that Barstool will never reach Bleacher Report’s current level, especially giving the backing and cross-platform integration it has from owner Turner Sports, but there’s seemingly a lot of arrogance in that statement, particularly considering that many once wrote B/R itself off in similar terms.
The whole podcast is full of Finocchio making big claims about B/R, though, including early on where he says “Bleacher Report is, I would say at this point, the leading millennial destination for sports culture and news. It’s gotten pretty big.” B/R unquestionably has found major success and looks to be set up well for the future, especially considering what else we’ve seen about their revenues and how widely distributed they are across sources, but “leading millennial destination” is a pretty substantial brag, and one not necessarily completely supported by the evidence.
(Consider that B/R didn’t even make the cut for ESPN’s graphic about unique digital users in December, which featured themselves, CBS Sports, Yahoo/NBC Sports and the NFL; B/R probably does better in metrics that are exclusively focused on younger demographics, and they unquestionably do very well when elements like social reach are factored in, but there are a lot of millennials and others going elsewhere too.)
(Update: Bleacher Report says they reach 200 million people every month across social, with “3,367 social interactions per minute across platforms,” that 84 per cent of their audience is under 35, and that “more people like, share, comment on its content than any other sports publisher on social.” They also emphasize the success of the House of Highlights Instagram brand they bought (Finocchio talks about that extensively in the podcast), which has 8 million followers and sees 112 million social interactions per month. So, as mentioned above, they do better in metrics focused on social and younger demographics, and that’s further proof of why their revenues are widely distributed beyond their website. Original post follows.)
And Barstool is far from the only competitor Finocchio has some unflattering comments for; when Kafka brings up SB Nation (owned by Vox, which also owns Recode), Finocchio says “We send those guys a lot of traffic. We’ve always tried to be good to them, but yeah, for talking a reach game, we’re pretty big” and “From the 2008-10 era, they were our mortal enemy. We’d come to work every day and try to kick their asses.” And Finocchio also has some cutting remarks about “old media” in general:
“We’re pretty good at data. That’s kind of how we came up in this business. You had all these old media companies that were trusting really talented and experienced editors’ guts, and then we did all of this math and figured out they were covering the wrong topics, and SB Nation did some of the same work at the same time. In terms of that happening today, where all these people are interested in this and mainstream’s over here, I will say that I think traditionally you think of sports as being a bit jock-y and it can be kind of exclusive, where there’s a segment of the population that’s really into sports and they care about wins and losses and they care about stats and they care about whatever, and then there are people over here that aren’t sports fans.”
Finocchio went on to further play up that “inclusive” idea.
“For us, what’s really changed over the past few years with the total disruption that’s happened in the sports world because of mobile and social platforms, is I think sports culture has become much more inclusive. You have people that don’t care about wins and losses, but they like Russell Westbrook highlights.” “Or they like seeing what he wore, right?” “Totally. They like seeing what Russell Westbrook wore. Sports is this wonderful soap opera, right? Maybe the White House is the best, most-compelling soap opera that’s going on in this country right now, but maybe the NBA is the second-best soap opera. You’ve got all these characters, it’s basically an ensemble cast, you’ve got mainstays like LeBron…”
Kafka responded “And your premise is that in the past, you would have only have seen that if you went to ESPN, if you were at a bar or went to someone’s house that had an NBA game on? But the internet, it sort of permeates, it comes to you…you didn’t even seek it out, but you might be aware that Russell Westbrook wore something crazy before the game?”
And Finocchio replied “I think in the past, you found out about sports sort of through your connection to your local newspaper or SportsCenter or your connection to your family, but for the most part, it was sort of more top-down, because most people, the content they consume now is accounts they follow or sharing. They’re getting all this content from their peer group that they wouldn’t normally consume if they sought it out themselves. And sports content, amongst men, men don’t really share content outside of sports if you look at the numbers. So that’s where I say that sports content has become more inclusive because people become influenced by the culture of sports without necessarily caring about the games.”
It would be interesting to hear how Finocchio considers his company to be covering the culture of sports, but doesn’t think Barstool is covering sports when they do culture-of-sports or sports-adjacent commentary. There are obviously differences between B/R and Barstool’s approaches, but writing the one off as “not sports” feels a bit much considering that Finocchio’s also bragging about how B/R has covered all the culture-of-sports stories while “old media” was covering “the wrong topics.”
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“We built a funnel business,” he said. “We built a lot of search traffic, we basically figured out how to data mine and figure out everything people wanted to see on every single sport, every single team on a 365-day basis. We do it one year, and then the next year we’d figure out how to do it better. We got really, really good at that. …When the social platforms happened, we were just better at framing content than other people.”
He then addressed the changing compensation over the years.
“From 2005-2009, 2010, everyone was unpaid. 2010, we had gone from raising a couple of million dollars to having some real money, we started paying some of the staff. And eventually by 2013, I think the last unpaid contribution was 2013, maybe it was early 2014. …Did we plan to pay people from the beginning? I don’t know if we ever thought that far ahead. So it sort of happened organically.”
Finocchio then said he’d do things differently in retrospect.
“In retrospect, there’s probably some things I would have done differently on the audience growth standpoint, just in terms of the way we treated some writers, there are things I’d do differently for sure. But we just totally honed in on audience growth because we thought that was the only way we could build a sustainable business.”
Earlier on, Kafka also touched on B/R’s rise into more of an established company, saying “I think of the sports media universe as ESPN, the big guys, then Sports Illustrated, used to be the big guys, then you folks and SB Nation over the last decade showed up, became a big force in digital. Now you’re sort of the established medium/old guard.” Finocchio responded “Yeah, it’s crazy, right?” Kafka said “Because there’s Barstool, and there’s guys on Instagram.” Finocchio said “There’s House of Highlights, we’re having to buy stuff and build it to make sure that we don’t get disrupted, which is a different position to be in, having started this company in 2005. We’ve been at it a while.”
Towards the end of the podcast, Finocchio talked about B/R’s prominence as a source of traffic for other outlets.
“We mean different things to different people, but if you ask any sports company in the space, usually after Facebook and Google, we’re their third-largest referral source. I would guess we’re ESPN’s third-largest referral source, we’re probably SB Nation’s third-largest referral source. We point a ton of traffic to The Athletic, and if our users want to subscribe to The Athletic, that’s all good, great and fine. People want to use different sports products. As long as they’re still coming to us and using us as a portal or a platform someday, I think we’re deriving as much value…at least, it’s enough for me.”
Those comments are interesting, and there’s other notable stuff in this podcast, including Finocchio’s discussion of selling B/R to Turner, leaving the company after a transition period, and then returning as CEO later. But it’s those comments on Barstool that are perhaps the most noteworthy, and it’s interesting that B/R’s CEO is so adamant (at least here) about the differences between the companies, saying “We work very hard to be inclusive and we don’t offend people. They purposely offend people.” He’s certainly not wrong that Barstool isn’t focused on appealing to everyone and isn’t worried about offending people, but it’s notable to have another big digital sports media company’s CEO make these kind of remarks about Barstool and set his company up somewhat in opposition to their approach.