Wave Makes A Play To Overthrow ESPN And Bleacher Report As Sports Leader Of The Social Age
Seeing emergent platforms like Facebook Watch and IG TV evolving into legitimate hubs for hit shows and original content, the digital paradigm is shifting to further empower independent creators, elevate viral personalities and capitalize on cultural moments.
With millennials and Gen Z naturally connected to their devices and tied to social media, the tables are turning at an extremely accelerated pace. As a result, an increasing number of linear networks and digital publishers alike are tirelessly exploring new ways to break ground in the social entertainment space.
Standing firmly as the fourth largest sports media publisher across social platforms, Wave currently owns and operates a growing portfolio of more than 100 channels, directly distributing content to over 24 million active followers. Founded in 2017, their channels collectively generate a staggering 800 million monthly views, with 650 million attributed to video and upward of 50 million monthly engagements.
In 2018, Wave was the 69th most-viewed Media & Entertainment property across all social platforms, and the 8th most-viewed sports property. Back in April of this year, the company also quickly grew to become the 5th most-viewed sports property on Instagram totaling 439 million views.
Following the 2018 College Football Playoffs, Wave garnered 3.7 million video views, officially becoming the second most-viewed property of related videos uploaded to Instagram. During this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, the company also became the third most-viewed property of March Madness related videos uploaded to Instagram at 16.3 million views. Wave was also a dominant source for social content amidst the NFL Draft, generating 7.5 million views, and the NBA Playoffs, reaching 159 million views and 17.4 million engagements.
Prior to launching Wave, co-founders Brian Verne and Ishaan Sutaria spent an entire year operating under the radar as Bullpen Labs. The unveiling of Wave comes as the company recently went public, repositioning Bullpen as the holding company, with Wave being the first of many imprints to come. Revealing ambitious plans to define the future of sports media, Wave has raised $3.3 million in funding to date.
I spoke with Ishaan and Brian about the vision behind their company, the future of sports media and their plans for building a global social empire.
How would you describe Wave and the business model you’ve built around it?
Ishaan: We currently run over 100 of the most trafficked sports channels. Instagram has been the primary driver for growing our audience, and we’ve done so really effectively. We started in March of last year, witnessing the way consumption trends were changing across sports. We reach over 25 million basketball fans monthly, but also have 7 million active followers of soccer and another 7 million following American football. We also have distribution channels representing every professional team in the NFL, as well as Cricket, e-sports, rugby and so forth. Our thinking is rooted in socially covering sports globally. Over the past year and a half, we’ve done a very effective job of building out our network to the point where we now generate over 800 million monthly content views; 450 million are video views. We also have over 24 million active followers and attract more than 50 million engagements each month. Right now, we’re the fastest-growing online sports media company globally in terms of social viewership.
Brian: We’ve both spent the vast majority of our professional careers either building or working within companies at the intersection of athletes, fans and emerging media. We’ve also had extensive experience working with and understanding traditional publishers. The crux of the opportunity is that we saw how quickly sports media consumption was shifting from traditional platforms like television and web to social and mobile videos. From this observation, we developed a thesis that if someone was going to develop the next biggest sports media brand or publisher, that would require developing communities and building audience on top of the platforms where people already are. In this case, that means Instagram, Snap and YouTube. The next step is using these new media formats, particularly Instagram posts and Instagram Stories, to recreate the sports television complex on social channels where consumers are today. Over the last year, we’ve built over 100 channels with a wholistic content focus, from general everyday sports coverage and team-specific coverage, to global and e-sports coverage. The goal is to provide the consumer with both breadth and specificity.
Operating so many different social channels across platforms — What is your approach to establishing a truly global and focused scope of sports coverage?
Ishaan: One of our differentiators is how we run our newsroom. The core of our thesis as a company, outside of shifting media trends, was seeing how sports media has long been controlled by gatekeepers. These gatekeepers limited the scope of stories and narratives that were told and who could participate in telling those stories. We believe this traditional model was not truly reflective of the diversity, authenticity and global nature of sports. The way we run our newsroom is centered around empowering hundreds of creators around the world who are finding, shooting and editing content that brings their voice, viewpoint and unique style into the storytelling. Our vision is to do this at scale and really allow millions of athletes, fans, and personalities immersed in sports daily to collectively participate in the sharing of those moments. The way we’ve built our network is very conducive to allowing us to scale long-term.
As digital media trends continue changing and platforms like IG TV and Facebook Watch emerge — What has the success of your model revealed you about where the industry is going?
Ishaan: It’s not necessarily about thinking social-first or social-by-design, but more so about simply being consumer-first. It’s about creating spaces and building platforms around where people are naturally creating and consuming content daily. We’re not forcing people to move outside of their habits to interact with our content, but instead making it a seamless experience that allows them to engage with us organically through one of our several channels. Distributed models to gather content work better than centralized models. If you tap into the collective power of people globally who are actively sharing stories and experiencing incredible moments, that is a smart way to amass more compelling and relevant content at scale. It’s also a better way to organically engage a global audience by becoming a natural part of their journey. It’s not about trying to dictate or control their content journey, but instead hitting meaningful touch-points for people throughout their day which is what we’re doing. You’re not expecting a consumer to go to ESPN at 9pm to watch Sportscenter and wait 30 minutes to see the one highlight they really care about. You’re allowing them to see what they want, when they want, from wherever they want during very natural points of their daily journey with a voice that resonates with them. You see this in the success of our company, being able to amass the amount of viewership and followers as quickly as we have. That stems from the desire of consumers to get content from new sources in new ways.
Brian: Two fundamental truths drive everything that we do. In this era, the traditional destination site is antiquated. In terms of where it’s heading next, the traditional newsroom model is also antiquated. The future will be decentralized newsrooms, which more accurately reflects the relationship between millions of athletes, fans and storytellers worldwide. We believe in the power of sports, and the notion that sports is the world’s greatest equalizer. The commonality that exists between our global community of creators, fans and athletes is a genuine passion and love for sports. What’s exciting to us about this opportunity is that we’re enabling people to have a voice, take a stand and share stories through their worldview. As a result, all of the storytelling is native and authentic. That’s what the consumer wants, and that’s why models like Wave represent the blueprint for what a media company of the future looks like.
Considering your decentralized approach to covering sports globally — What have been the keys to effectively managing such rapid growth and scale?
Ishaan: What we are currently building internally is a platform for us to allow this global collective of creators to easily capture content optimized for distribution across the platforms we operate. This allows us to scale our newsroom from 400 to 40,000 storytellers efficiently, also allowing creators to develop audiences and reputations of their own by distributing through our network. We’re putting a lot of effort into scaling our product offering and contributor network. Nike used to say if you have a body, you’re an athlete. We like to say that if you have an opinion, you’re a creator.
Brian: It comes down to empowerment. Yes, we have certain brand guidelines and an ethos we embody to make sure we remain consistent and cohesive across all of our channels. Yet, at the end of the day, what is most beautiful and powerful about our model is giving creators freedom to tell stories and express their worldview. The authenticity that comes as a byproduct of that is what drives such a high engagement and viewership.
What is your criteria for acquiring a social channel or developing a new brand from the ground up?
Ishaan: Our model is to allow anyone to be a contributor. Naturally, we only pick the content that performs best to be distributed throughout our network of channels. We use analytics to evaluate which individual content pieces or types perform the best and where those pieces of content could potentially live. We also use the analytics to track which contributors consistently share engaging content, have an authentic voice and are growing an audience of their own. What you find is a combination of contributors. You’ll see the young professional who has season tickets and never misses a game contributing. You’ll also see the die hard fan who doesn’t go to every game, but watches five hours of highlights every night contributing. You also have the basketball purist who just waits for the most interesting or memorable moments to share. Then, you have the self-proclaimed sports analyst who breaks down every stat, giving the information and commentary the community wants. Of course, you also have the athletes who share their own stories or give the perspective of being in the games and experiencing all that comes with the sport. To our initial thesis, it’s encapsulating the notion that anyone with an opinion is a creator, and we welcome all of those voices and viewpoints to become contributors on our platform.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome while building your business?
Ishaan: Anytime you’re doing something unconventional or for the first time, it’s always met with detractors and challenges. You always encounter people who tell you it can’t be done or won’t be successful. Both have been truth in our case, especially considering how quickly we’ve built and grown the business. Operationally speaking, it’s not easy creating as much content as we do. The fact that we’ve done this with just a team of 11 here speaks volumes to the talent and dedication we have. It was also challenging building community and developing multiple channels, all while being in stealth mode as a company. Each channel has its own look, focus and style of content that we maintain. Sports is a traditional industry, which presents inherent challenges because so much of having success and elevating is determined by reputation or your network. For us to remain under the radar for as long as we did and scale like we have is a testament to our model, but also very difficult to do. Starting with just eleven 20-30 year-olds working together in one office with a big idea and no exact idea of how it was going to happen — it was a challenge building our reputation and gaining credibility in the industry. In terms of public perception, the space is picking up and becoming more popular. This opens more doors in terms of fundraising because of visibility, but this wasn’t the reality when we started. It was hard to prove to anybody that this idea we had was a viable business upfront, so we had to diligently build it in stages and take what we could get.