Deeming its first year of coverage a success, Turner Sports and Bleacher Report are aiming to further ramp up content around the UEFA Champions League as it enters its second season as a rightsholder.
The broadcaster shocked many in the sports industry when it acquired the U.S. English language rights to both the Champions League and the Europa League. Turner Sports agreed to pay more than $60 million annually for the rights, which run through the spring of 2021, outbidding other more-deeply invested soccer rights holders like Fox and NBC. Fox Sports had previously held the rights dating back to 2010.
While Turner has had history broadcasting soccer, the last time it had it on its schedule was in 1990 with the FIFA World Cup.
That led to “a lot of exploration and experimentation” in year one, said Craig Barry, Turner Sports chief content officer.
Part of that experimentation was the deep link between Turner Sports and the linear broadcast on TNT with the digital offerings from Bleacher Report, which included the streaming of matches on B/R Live and the creation and sharing of content on B/R Football, the vertical it launched around soccer.
The collaboration between the two parties around the UEFA rights was the first time they had worked together on a property to this degree. Bleacher Report was acquired by Turner in August 2012 for $175 million. The two launched B/R Live in March 2018.
“The way we were able to come to this B/R Football integration, the way it worked across all platforms and the way we were able to use the content was one of the big highlights,” said Barry. “There were a lot of musical chairs to some degree figuring out behind the scenes where everyone’s strengths led and how to deal with two relatively separate divisions between B/R and Turner Sports – looking back I think we were successful.”
While Barry admitted there were growing pains at times, ranging from having to figure out what content would work better on linear versus socially and vice versa to ironing out how it should approach a new studio show, the results showed that year one was a success.
During its 2018-2019 Champions League coverage, TNT averaged 310,000 viewers for its 45 live match telecasts, which marks the best numbers for the property in a decade. While year-over-year comparisons to Fox’s broadcasts are not exactly apples-to-apples due to some lesser matches being aired on FS2 to lower ratings while Turner streamed them on B/R Live, Turner said TNT’s coverage was up 44% in viewership. Viewership of the pre-match studio show was up 106% compared to the same window in the previous year.
On the digital front, UEFA Champions League content on Bleacher Report and B/R Footballs’s social media account combined to deliver more than 153 million engagements and 362 million video views through the final, more than any other domestic rights holder.
More recently, B/R Football was the 10th most engaged account on Twitter compared with the top 1,000 most followed accounts in August, and had more than 220 million cross-platform video views in August, marking a record month.
Travis Rettke, general manager of B/R Football, said given that soccer consumption in the U.S. has typically been geared towards linear broadcasts, the aim was to “change the way people consumer the Champions League and soccer coverage more broadly.”
“There’s always an inherent challenge with the Champions League as its timing in weekday afternoons doesn’t align with more of our sports consumption habits, so we wanted to find ways that they can consume the content across linear and social channels,” Rettke said. “At the same time, we need to engage a new audience that follows other sports, while also providing the analysis and in-depth conversation that the die-hard fans want to consume.”
In year two, meeting those goals means some tweaks in the studio show, ranging from having all of the analysts on-site in Atlanta to transitioning Steve Nash to contributing more standalone features.
Rettke said year two on digital will see the doubling down on content that worked well, while also better integrating stories about the culture of the clubs and cities in which matches are being played. Turner Sports has brought on Aaron West, who previously was contributing to Fox Sports’s coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, to dive deeper into that topic.
That also includes bringing back The Champions, a digital animated series featuring some of the biggest names in soccer. Rettke said it was the best performing pieces of content ever created on Bleacher Report in terms of views.
Barry said there is still a balancing act about figuring out what works best on each platform, and what falls flat on the other even if it’s a big performer elsewhere.
“The Champions is a key example – it plays great in short clips on the B/R platform, but put in its longest form, it plays difficult on TV where it’s less digestible,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that viewers don’t like it, but it’s about finding the right places for things – not all platforms are created equally.”
Both Barry and Rettke admitted there is still plenty of room to grow – not only in the relationship between Turner Sports and Bleacher Report but with the UEFA Champions League platform itself.
“We’re witnessing this acceptance of soccer and the growth of the fandom – we know we have a little bit of a phenomenon on our hands here,” Barry said. “But while we agree there is great potential, we know what we have to continue on this path of a gradual burn to get to a place of incredible fandom like you see in some of these other sports.”