SAN FRANCISCO--The Super Bowl takes place in just over 72 hours, and Brian Grey and his lieutenants are trying to plan what is by far their most important day of the year.
Grey is the CEO of Bleacher Report, one of the largest sports Web sites in the U.S., and a place nearly 26 million people visited in January for the latest insights into their favorite teams.
Unlike many sports publications, Bleacher Report doesn't concentrate on breaking news with a team of paid writers. Instead, it relies on sports enthusiasts around the country and the world who are passionate about the teams they love and who are happy to pen opinion and reaction pieces at a heavy pace--and do so mainly for free--in exchange for a prestigious slot on the site.
I've come to visit Bleacher Report as part of my Day on the Job series, and as Grey looks at his calendar and sees that a staff meeting conflicts with one about programming the site before, during, and after the Super Bowl, he decides "to call an audible" and bail on the staff.
For Bleacher Report, the NFL's championship game, between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, is, to borrow a phrase, the granddaddy of all events. It's watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom will be looking for smart insights into what's going on, on and off--sometimes very far off--the field. Grey and his team want to be the ones providing the best of that intelligence.
But finding just the right mix of stories and videos, pictures and tweets, is essential. Getting it right on Sunday is absolutely key to keeping the site's passionate readers happy--and coming back for more. A year ago the company had about 25 employees; today that number is a little over a hundred. Across the board, the site's growth is impressive: 700 million page views in January, and big boosts in unique users, visits, and page views. But now it's time to show if the team is ready to play with the big boys.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday
At Bleacher Report, almost every room with a door is named after and features a large painting of a famous athlete. Grey's office is named after the famous distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Right now we're in Ripken--named after the Baltimore Orioles' Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken. It's a small conference room with white boards on opposite walls.
On one of the boards, director of programming Dorth Raphaely and front page manager Bennett Spector have laid out a mock-up of the entire Bleacher Report front page alongside a list of the packages that will run in its main position during the 11 hours prior to Super Bowl kickoff. On the other board, the two have drawn up the front page's layout and initial plan for the game itself.
These are the blueprints for programming choices that could mean millions of page views won or lost--not to mention the advertising revenue that's on the line.
Bleacher Report is treating Super Bowl Sunday as a 30-hour affair that will end at 11 a.m. on Monday, and its core team of content programmers, producers, and editors are likely to be spending most of that time in the company's war room upstairs.
Grey sits down and Spector and Raphaely begin. A few minutes later, co-founder and vice president of product and content Dave Finocchio arrives.
Spector starts by explaining that for the main home page slot (known as "L1") in the hours prior to the game, he and Raphaely have crafted a list of feature packages that will each run for one or two hours. At 4 a.m. on Sunday, he says, they'll kick off with a package on the hundred best Super Bowl commercials of all time. That will be followed by one on the head-to-head battle between quarterbacks Eli Manning of the Giants and Tom Brady of the Patriots.
Where Bleacher Report hopes to make a difference is by giving its readers a blend of content that is one part ESPN, another part TMZ, and yet another part Twitter, presenting the entire Super Bowl experience, not just the action on the field. "We're not afraid to run a screen grab of Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez" in the luxury boxes, Spector says.
The plan is to feverishly monitor just about every important social channel on the Web--especially Super Bowl-related hashtags on Twitter--for anything worth mentioning and then get those things up pronto. Being first can almost instantly bear fruit--sometimes thousands of views in just minutes. "This is content that ESPN is not running," says Finocchio, "and that's the important point. None of the other national sites are running it either. This is about differentiating ourselves from ESPN."
Though there's little doubt Bleacher Report will attract a sizable audience in the hours before kickoff, the devil is really in the details about how the site will be run once the pigskin is in the air.
Topping the page will be a narrow banner directing anyone who wants to watch the game online to NBC.com's live stream of the Super Bowl. Just below, the main front page slot will be home to a live blog where each play, along with everything else that's worth noting about the full-on Super Bowl "experience," will be discussed. That could be the military jets flying over the stadium or how injured Patriots player Rob Gronkowski looks during warmups. "No one's tuning in to us to find out the score," Finocchio points out. "That's not the focus of our value proposition."
That's not to say the site won't feature the score--it will, prominently. But the main thing will be the "experience" live blog, along with several other live blogs on topics like the game's much-anticipated ads, celebrity sightings, noteworthy tweets, and even the best "prop bets." For example, Grey says, water is currently a 3-1 favorite over Gatorade for the postgame drenching traditionally dished out to the winning coach by his players.
Essentially, there's nothing that can't make its way onto the front page--as long as it's something hot. If singer Kelly Clarkson botches the National Anthem, Spector says, "that's what people will be talking about," and it'll be noted prominently.
A big part of Bleacher Report's mission is to opine on winners--both on the field and off. So when the final whistle blows and the Super Bowl MVP is talking about going to Disneyland, the site's writers and producers will already be churning out opinions on everything from which quarterback came out on top to which car company's ad was the best to what people thought of the halftime show. "If Madonna kills it, and everyone says she's back," says Finocchio, "then she should be a big winner."
Likewise, Bleacher Report is eager to point out the losers. Certainly, the vanquished quarterback will be highlighted, but also the worst commercials, and even those who post catastrophic tweets.
There's also going to be a need, of course, for a ton of smart football analysis. One idea is an instant ranking of all 46 Super Bowl MVPs and where Sunday's fits. But Finocchio worries that Bleacher Report's audience is too young for such a comprehensive list. "If you have Kenny Stabler on the list, if he won an MVP [the Raiders quarterback never did], no one's going to remember that game," Finocchio says. "At least no one in our audience. The last 20 years might be OK. The last 10 might be even better."
They settle on a list of 10, a group that they calculate--inaccurately--would include Patriots quarterback Brady's first win in 2002.
Another good feature, they agree, would be one comparing Brady to San Francisco 49ers great Joe Montana, since a Patriots win would tie Brady with Montana at four Super Bowl rings apiece. If the Giants win, Brady likely moves into the biggest losers category.
Still another feature would be on what a Giants win means for the Las Vegas sports books. In the middle of the season, Finocchio explains, the Giants slumped badly, and the odds of their winning the Super Bowl plummeted to 100-1. A lot of Giants fans took that bet, and now stand to make a killing.
One would think that the Super Bowl insanity ends Sunday night. But at Bleacher Report, that's hardly the case. The staff has to push through for one more day. Indeed, the planning for Monday's lead article is as crucial as it gets.
So before the Super Bowl discussion breaks up, they talk about what they'll focus on for Monday. For starters there will be a power ranking of each NFL team for the following season and a prediction of who will win next year's big game. There will also be a mock draft, special Giants and Patriots pages, and more.
"There will be an obscene amount of traffic," Finocchio says. "Five hundred thousand people will read that lead article."
All told, he says excitedly, Bleacher Report has a chance to do something huge with its coverage of the big game. With everything they plan to put up, Finocchio predicts, especially if they find the right mix of stories, "We should take a run at hitting 40 million pages on Monday."
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