A cofounder of Bleacher Report reflects on the two biggest decisions that changed the trajectory of his startup

Dave Nemetz By  Inna.lila 6 crop
Dave Nemetz.

  • Dave Nemetz is a cofounder of Bleacher Report and the founder of Inverse and writes a weekly newsletter on media and startups.
  • The following is a recent post, republished with his permission.
  • In it, Nemetz advises startup founders to focus on their personal journey and forget about the ‘what ifs.’
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In the movie “Sliding Doors,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s character follows two parallel storylines.

If she catches a train, her life takes one path. If she doesn’t, it leads in another direction. The film shows how a small, seemingly inconsequential change can drastically alter the course of your life.

Startups have sliding door moments, too. Over the course of building your company, you face several divergent paths. Some are obvious at the time, some only become clear in hindsight.

At Bleacher Report, we faced many such decision points. Two in particular stick out.

Read more: How to know when to sell your startup, according to a cofounder of Bleacher Report who sold his at age 28

Barely not Barstool

In the early days, our approach to content moderation was lax to non-existent. While everything published to B/R needed a sports angle, we took a loose interpretation of that lens.

As a result, the site had its fair share of unsavory content. This included posts and photo galleries that objectified women in sports. They had headlines like “Hottest WAGs (wives and girlfriends) in the NHL” or “25 Hot Cheerleader Pics.”

Looking back, I’m not proud to have contributed to the already misogynistic culture of sports. We accepted these posts as part of the “authentic fan conversation” encouraged within our community. In a development that should surprise nobody, they became some of our biggest traffic drivers.

So in a regrettable move, we took it a step further by launching a standalone section for this content called “Barely Sports.Cringeworthy, I know.

According to our logic, giving this content its own section separated it from our more sports-focused coverage. After all, we told ourselves, if Sports Illustrated had a swimsuit issue, why shouldn’t we have Barely Sports?

But we failed to recognize that by creating the section, we encouraged and legitimized more of this content. When Barely Sports launched, we got some notes from disappointed readers. And while I’d like to say that negative audience feedback was enough to sway us, the reality is a bit different. We changed our minds about Barely Sports not because of morals, but for money.

Our newly hired head of ad sales made nixing Barely Sports his first priority. To land deals with major brand advertisers, B/R needed to clean up our image. And that meant getting rid of the T&A.

Money talks. Barely Sports bit the dust.

We were all in on brand advertising as our business model. And we knew deep down that the B/R brand would be stronger if we took a more inclusive approach to sports fandom.

Around the same time, another digital sports publisher picked up traction by taking things further than we ever did. I’m talking, of course, about Barstool Sports. As B/R took a more centrist approach to covering sports fandom, Barstool leaned into the extremes. And they built an incredible business doing so.

Barstool pulled off the strategy that B/R abandoned by making two critical innovations:

  1. Barstool avoided depending on advertising as their only business model. Instead, their DTC approach cultivated an army of hardcore fans and monetized them directly.
  2. To buttress the brand against controversy, Barstool put the personas of their creators front and center. Rather than journalists or commentators, they branded them as outrageous characters straight out of pro wrestling storylines. If Barstool is the WWE, then Dave Portnoy is their Vince McMahon.

They played their game, we played ours.

Almost The Athletic

A bit later down the road, B/R faced another crossroads that could have altered our journey.

From early on, we viewed B/R as the sports fan’s replacement for declining local media. We talked about it in our very first fundraising pitch. With local newspapers collapsing and sports pages contracting, we planned to fill the void by empowering fans, bloggers, and up-and-coming writers to cover their teams.

But as the future we predicted played out, we saw a new opportunity: What if we hired displaced writers from local sports sections?

Many well-known beat reporters and columnists were losing their jobs and looking for new homes for their bylines. Hiring them could improve the quality of our coverage, bring some of their audience over, and boost our legitimacy. We seriously considered the idea. But after debate, we decided it wasn’t for us. Again, our business model was a major consideration.

These sports journalists were well-known in their local markets. But their name value didn’t register with the national advertisers we worked with. On top of that, our positioning in the market placed B/R as a fresh, young voice in sports. Hiring away experienced writers from the sports media establishment would dilute that story.

So instead we doubled down on hiring web-native writers who fit our mold. By establishing B/R as the place for fresh new voices in sports, we cemented our status as the place for big brands to reach younger sports fans. Of course, we weren’t the only ones to recognize the opportunity in realigning local sportswriting talent. I wasn’t surprised when a few years later, The Athletic emerged and gained momentum.

What made The Athletic’s approach to the opportunity work? It’s the business model, stupid.

Rather than advertising, they built everything around paid subscription. By quantifying the number of subscribers each new writer could bring, they knew exactly how much they could pay for talent. And their market positioning as the replacement for the local sports page was crystal clear.

It’s fun to reflect back on these moments. In an alternate timeline, Bleacher Report could have ended up more like Barstool. Or The Athletic. But, as far as we know, we only have one timeline.

Everything worked out great for Bleacher Report. So I guess you could say we made the right choices.

Barstool got huge then had a big exit. The Athletic may not be far behind.

When startups face these big decisions, they’re often framed in the most high-stakes way possible. One path could lead to success and riches. The other to failure and ruin.

The reality is a bit more nuanced. In most cases, both paths are viable. The key is heading in the direction that makes the most sense for your mission and business model. And remembering, too, that your competitors face their own forks in the road. Depending on the choices they make, they may cease to be competitors at all.

The internet contains multitudes. Even for digital sports publications, there are many paths to success. So don’t worry about the paths not taken. Focus on the one you’re on.

Dave Nemetz is the founder of Bleacher Report and Inverse and an expert on growing audiences and building communities. He writes a weekly newsletter about building and selling startups, growing audiences, and the mindset and creative processes employed by prolific makers.

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