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Bleacher Report wants to become the MTV for sports

The company is pushing hard into video and sports culture.

Indiana Pacers v Toronto Raptors - Game One Tom Szczerbowski / Getty

Bleacher Report CEO Dave Finocchio wants to build the next MTV — just without the whole TV part.

It’s been just over a year since Turner, which bought Bleacher Report for a reported $175 million back in 2012, laid out a plan to inject $100 million into turning the sports property into a video juggernaut.

In that time, Finocchio has launched a number of original online series and a feature length documentary, and is publishing daily on Snapchat as one of the company’s exclusive Discover partners.

"Digital is a great playground to start to develop series," Finocchio, who co-founded Bleacher Report in 2007, said in an interview with Recode. "We’re able to figure out what’s working and what’s not without betting the farm."

When Turner acquired Bleacher Report, it did so because it needed a sports destination to accompany its live sports coverage and compete with the likes of ESPN. With 60 million unique visitors a month, the site has become one of the most popular sports destinations on the internet.

Now Finocchio wants to step back from the stats and game stories that make up a lot of traditional sports coverage, and instead dig in on video series and documentaries that help connect the world’s most popular athletes to the culture they're helping to shape. It’s the kind of cultural focus that people loved about MTV, Finocchio said.

As part of the push, Bleacher Report launched an advertising campaign this week, which featured a TV commercial with NBA legend Allen Iverson. We spoke with Finocchio about how his video push is going and why Bleacher Report is changing its focus. What follows is an edited transcript of our interview.

You used to be a sports blog made up of user content. How should people think about Bleacher Report today? What’s the point of a TV campaign?

Dave Finocchio: We want people thinking of Bleacher Report as being the heart of sports culture. Sports is such an amazing lens into culture, I think for men especially in the United States. There’s no universal language culturally that’s bigger than sports. It’s at the center of how men talk to each other more so than any other subject matter.

The sports-culture tie-up sounds very ESPN-esque to me. Are you trying to emulate them here?

We actually don’t talk about them a lot internally. We probably talk about MTV the most. Not in the sense that we’re trying to emulate what MTV did in any particular way, but the extent to which MTV mattered to young people on a day-to-day basis in this country — the rise of MTV in the ’80s and into the ’90s was truly spectacular.

Do you want to get away from commodity news, like sports scores or highlights?

Box scores, games recaps, pick your kind of cliché sports content — that’s part of a classic sports fan’s experience. That’s part of what we offer. But those aren’t the parts of the sports experience that are [getting] a 12-year-old kid or a 17-year-old kid ... to emotionally [get] off the equivalent of his or her chair and see something that causes them to share it with their friends.

Will the content we see on Bleacher Report change at all?

We will probably do less traditional coverage of the Xs and Os on a game-by-game basis. We’re not as focused on in-studio talking head content. You will certainly see us take on more and more projects along the lines of a [Bleacher Report original series] “Game of Zones,” or things that fall more into an episodic entertainment type of motif.

Our content will oftentimes be more nuanced and access-driven, and we’ll focus on telling interesting stories. It’ll be less focused on two people yelling at each other in front of a camera.

So do you want to make shows for traditional television?

Pretty resolutely, at least for the time being, we’re committed to staying untethered from the cable ecosystem. I think it’s good to be flexible and maintain that flexibility. That means certainly over time we’ll make some plays in the broad OTT space. We’re not jumping in every time someone offers us a content licensing deal where we can make a little bit of money in the short term.

When we do decide to do something that’s really meaningful, we’ll go in in a bigger way versus just dipping our toes. Digital is a great playground to start to develop series. We’re able to figure out what’s working and what’s not without betting the farm. Play that out for a couple more years and I think we’ll probably be ready for real primetime.

Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter are all in the market for episodic content. Do you want to create stuff for those guys?

At present we’re not signed up to do shows with any of the platforms. We have a huge direct audience. When we did our first full-length documentary that came out in the middle of last year, we just put that out to our own properties for the first couple weeks it came out and it got millions of views. That’s something that we can do that a lot of others can’t.

You’re on Snapchat Discover both internationally and in the U.S. Is that good business for you?

We’re feeling really good about our decision to do that deal, and it’s also great for us because we make money. Credit to Snapchat that they’ve built a model for publishers that, [even though we] are inside their walled garden, we feel like we’re properly incentivized to create really great content on a day-to-day basis for them.

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