In 2007 four friends graduated college with a plan to bring sports news and reporting into the digital age. And thus, Bleacher Report was born. The fan-centered site has grown over the years to become a staple and legitimate force in the sports world with the help of significant funding from their parent company Turner Broadcasting. Their tremendous growth was not without its critics. Including this fantastic piece from The Onion. The site was, and in some circles still is, criticized for click bait content, listicles, and churning out sports content without much depth. Bleacher Report to their credit have responded in kind by changing their publishing structure and beefing up their writing team by snagging premier talent from CBS, the New York Times, and ESPN. All the while Bleacher Report continued to lead the sports market in digital, shareable, and entertaining content generating more than 40 million social interactions a month. To stay ahead of and drive this curve Bleacher Report took the next logical step for their organization. Bleacher Report announced in August that they had secured an exclusive social content partnership with Notre Dame Football for the duration of the season. This partnership is the first of its kind, and allowed Bleacher Report behind-the-scenes access to any and all football activities including practice, game day (home and away), locker room, travel, as well as recording student and campus life of the players. The Bleacher Report social team was embedded with the team for the entire season to create custom content for Notre Dame fans across the country.
A sports news outlet who has always been a leap ahead of the competition in terms of digital content and engagement pairing with an American football institution. A match made in heaven. Except it didn’t work. What happened? Notre Dame went 4-8.
It had so much potential, and so much promise. The pre-season #10 Fighting Irish started the season with a high profile game against Texas. Even when Notre Dame lost that game it wasn’t panic time yet, but after losing to Duke and sitting 1-3 after week 4 the Bleacher Report staff probably knew. They knew Notre Dame wasn’t going to be competing for a national championship. After a loss to Stanford that put the Irish at 2-5 for the season Bleacher Report had to know that they bet on the wrong horse. While Notre Dame did give Bleacher Report a national fan base their appeal was so much more than that, they were supposed to have a shot to go for it all this year. Bleacher Reports founder’s Notre Dame ties (David Finocchio class of ’05) probably helped give them the inside track to this exclusive partnership for more than just the Notre Dame brand. Bleacher Report wanted to be the only kids allowed at the table leading up to major games down the stretch and the only ones going with Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff. But it didn’t work out like that.
To Bleacher Reports credit there was no way they could have foreseen a dismal season like this and they did the best they could to pivot their strategy. The content shifted more away from the field, highlighting campus life, the team making a difference in the community, really anything to take their mind off the first Notre Dame team not headed to a bowl since 2009.
With bowl season upon us and the off season just a few weeks away will Bleacher Report re-up their deal with the Irish for next season? Will they take their social expertise elsewhere? When will ESPN, Fox Sports, or CBS Sports jump in and turn every top program into a bidding war for exclusive content? In their failure with Notre Dame this season Bleacher Report may have still written the script for the future interactions of digital media and collegiate sports. Can’t wait to watch all the money in those exclusive deals not go back to the college athletes.