‘Being Black, you have to work twice as hard’: Inside Bleacher Report’s staff revolt that toppled a CEO
There is a literal divide within Bleacher Report between its predominantly white executives and its Black content creators. In B/R’s New York City offices, most members of the leadership team as well as its predominantly white sales, revenue and marketing teams sit on the third floor. Below on the second floor sits the company’s content teams, which is where the majority of its Black employees can be found.
“When you come into the second floor, you see a sea of faces representative of what you would expect to see. When you go up to the third floor, especially the sales side, it’s entirely white,” said a current B/R employee.
The disparity between the racial makeup of the two floors symbolizes the incongruity between the people who hold the most power and responsibility at B/R and the people responsible for creating the company’s content — and embodying its brand. B/R evolved from an SEO-driven sports blog into a lifestyle sports brand connected to Black culture, such as through its foray into streetwear through a 2016 deal with sportswear label Kith and efforts to grow its sneaker culture property B/R Kicks.
“The third floor is a complete 180 of what Bleacher Report’s editorial voice is,” said another current B/R employee. Said another B/R employee: “There’s a lack of diversity at the top, and they are the ones profiting the most directly off of Black culture.”
The internal conflicts reached a boiling point in the past month after B/R leadership struggled to sufficiently address the police killing of George Floyd, subsequent Black Lives Matter protests and calls for greater support of Black people. A contentious five-hour-long all-hands meeting with B/R leadership on June 18 was followed by the announcement five days later that B/R CEO Howard Mittman would be leaving the company.
B/R has joined a parade of media companies — BuzzFeed, Condé Nast, Digital Trends, Refinery29 and The Ringer — in dealing with a reckoning on their approaches to diversity and inclusion. Like other instances, the B/R revolt was mostly grass roots — and aimed in large part to the systemic racism seen to be pervasive in media.
“The real failure is not even at a Bleacher level. It’s a system. Howard is the mascot of everything wrong, but he’s not the whole thing. The system is bigger than Howard,” said a former B/R employee.
The following is based on conversations with 11 current and former Bleacher Report employees as well as internal company documents, including a diversity report that was recently shared with employees, organizational charts and internal emails. Some details have been previously reported by Awful Announcing, New York Daily News and The Washington Post. Mittman declined to comment. A spokesperson for B/R’s parent organization Turner Sports declined to comment on the record for this article.
“It’s become clear to me that significant change needs to occur now,” Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels wrote in a memo shared with Digiday and sent to B/R employees on June 23 to announce Mittman’s departure and a plan for the company’s People Advisory Committee to ensure diversity in B/R’s hiring and employee management.
Leadership’s lack of diversity
On June 8 — three days before the first of multiple all-hands meetings at B/R following the killing of George Floyd in late May — B/R and Turner Sports emailed B/R employees to share a diversity report that makes clear how significant the racial disparity is within B/R — 70% of B/R employees are white and 10% are Black. And there are no B/R employees at the vp level or above who are Black, according to the diversity report, a copy of which was obtained by Digiday. Meanwhile, 67% of B/R talent are Black employees; a source at Bleacher Report said that talent only refers to the half-dozen or so employees, such as Taylor Rooks, Master Tesfatsion and Adam Lefkoe, that appear in B/R’s shows and other content.
The figures were not surprising, employees said. The lack of diversity, particularly within certain departments, had become a running internal joke. When new employees join the company, the hiring manager typically sends a companywide email that includes information about the individual as well as a photo of them. Often these new hires are white people. “You scroll to the bottom and oh, there’s another blonde-haired white woman or another generic white guy with a beard wearing flannel,” said a current B/R employee.
The lack of diversity within B/R is even more pointed among its sales and revenue operations teams, based on current organizational charts for both teams that were viewed by Digiday. The org chart for B/R’s sales team lists 29 employees, including chief revenue officer Stefanie Rapp. Of those employees, none are Black. Similarly, the org chart for B/R’s revenue operations team lists 18 employees, including Rapp, and only one is a Black employee.
Mittman joined B/R as chief revenue and marketing officer in July 2017, having spent the prior 12 years at Condé Nast. He brought with him not only experience leading sales for an established media company but also executives with the same pedigree and complexion. Rapp and B/R chief marketing officer Ed Romaine are both former Condé executives who joined Mittman at B/R. Before Mittman’s departure, three of the five members of B/R’s C-suite hailed from Condé Nast.
“The Condé leadership [at B/R] was very, very visible. They used to send welcome emails, and you would read the same lines over and over again. It was like, OK, these were his friends,” said a former B/R employee.
The racial homogeneity of B/R’s sales team has been a point of frustration among many B/R employees, according to those current and former employees interviewed for this article. The topic has been broached by employees at multiple company all-hands meetings, including the five-hour-long forum on June 18. During that meeting, Mittman was asked why the sales team is predominantly white and responded that he didn’t know, according to employees who were in that forum. The source at B/R said that Mittman had said that the racial makeup of the sales team remains an ongoing challenge for B/R and the overall industry.
During the June 18 forum, Mittman and chief content officer Sam Toles were asked to answer yes or no whether they would consider it a failure if B/R does not hire at least one Black person to a leadership position by the end of this year. Neither said yes and instead said they will expand the search as much as possible and do everything they can to interview the best quality candidates. That answer may have been connected to B/R’s hiring freeze but nonetheless failed to satisfy the B/R employees interviewed for this article. “If you can’t give that [‘yes’] answer and are trying to run in circles around the question, there’s a problem,” said a current B/R employee.
B/R’s leadership team acknowledged the problem in a presentation given during an hourlong company meeting on June 11. The presentation included four slides, which were viewed by Digiday, that outline how B/R plans to improve representation and support the development of its employees of color. Those plans include adding diverse leaders, such as Turner executives Tara August and Tammie Williams, to B/R’s executive committee, establishing target representation goals by group and establishing a diversity board to meet with final candidates considered for positions at the manager level and higher. Among the goals listed in the presentation was: “Increase diversity on executive leadership team and hire more diverse leaders across all departments, the most urgent and critical work to start with Revenue.”
B/R’s Black employees have had to take on much of that work themselves. In 2019, two of B/R highest ranking Black employees teamed up to create “Are You Listening?,” a series that debuted that February for Black History Month and feature Black athletes discussing issues such as the first time they were called the N-word. The combination of sports and Black culture would appear to intersect perfectly with Bleacher Report’s purview. However, the two employees teamed up to pitch the project because they felt it would be harder for B/R executives to reject than if only one of them were to pitch it. The two employees also pooled their respective budgets together to fund the project. The project’s budget was roughly $40,000, whereas the budgets for B/R’s premium shows, such as Emmy-winning “Game of Zones,” typically are in the range of $150,000 to $200,000, though the latter shows can be costlier to produce because they involve teams of animators and graphic designers.
“If you’re a Black employee, there was always this feeling that you had to get multiple people behind you. Our awareness of what the culture was saying and who the culture cared about was something that was always challenged by leadership and sometimes our white colleagues,” said a former B/R employee.
In the second quarter of 2019, the Black employees’ efforts to tackle those challenges were formalized through the creation of a Black employee resource group called EmB/Race that received a budget from B/R for professional development and other initiatives to support B/R’s Black employees, such as covering expenses to send Black full-time employees to conferences hosted by organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists.
However, even as an organized group that had received the backing of B/R, EmB/Race faced challenges in forging a path to leadership positions for Black employees.
During one meeting between Mittman and EmB/Race in 2019, Mittman said, “The cupboards are bare when it comes to Black leaders,” according to an employee who was in that meeting. “We were all just like, ‘You’re speaking to a room full of Black leadership,’” said this employee. “There are multiple Black leaders in this building contributing far beyond their pay grade and job description.”
During a 2019 meeting between Mittman and EmB/Race, members of EmB/Race voiced their requests for how B/R leadership could better support its Black employees. The requests included a diversity report and a fair evaluation of internal Black candidates for leadership positions. Some members of EmB/Race saw the action plan that B/R leadership presented during the June 11 all-hands as a remixing of those requests. They took it as yet another sign that, even though they are not among the leadership executives responsible for the company, they have to bear the responsibility of ensuring that changes are made.
After the killing of Floyd on May 25, B/R sought to release a statement on its Instagram account regarding the tragedy and subsequent outcry over racial injustice in the U.S. Mittman had B/R leadership ask two of the company’s highest-ranking Black employees to craft it. The employees declined, feeling it was above their pay grade, and Mittman ended up writing the statement, according to current and former B/R employees. The source at B/R said the statement was a collaboration among B/R leadership, EmB/Race leadership and B/R’s social moments team; this person also said that Mittman made edits to the statement with the support of EmB/Race’s leadership team. Either way, the statement that was posted to B/R’s Instagram account on June 1 did not go over well with those employees that spoke to Digiday.
“The statement we put out as a company that starts ‘Racism exists’ — no shit,” said a current B/R employee.
A ceiling on growth
The dearth of Black employees among B/R’s leadership ranks has limited the ability of B/R’s Black employees to ascend into those ranks, according to the current and former B/R employees. These employees said they feel that promotions for Black employees are contingent on other Black employees championing them for those promotions and that a majority of the Black employees at B/R were hired by Black managers. The diversity report states that, as of February 2020, only 8% of managers and directors at B/R were Black.
Several current and former Black B/R employees said that they have remained in the same roles while white employees that joined the company after them, and that in some cases have less experience than the Black employees, received promotions.
“I’ve seen white employees enter the company after me and get promoted before me for having less responsibility, bringing in less revenue but getting rewarded more. What do I have to do?” said one current B/R employee.
“Being a Black professional, you have to work twice as hard, sometimes three times as hard, and still not feel like you’re getting there,” said another current B/R employee.
One former B/R employee who is Black said that they received a promotion after their first year at the company and acknowledged that they were an outlier. However, this employee attributed that promotion to having a Black manager who had recruited this employee to B/R and then put the employee up for the promotion. “I attribute my promotion to him 100%,” said the employee of the manager.
In August 2019, B/R laid off roughly 20 employees within its content organization. Those layoffs affected the employees that had produced the company’s shows, and the layoffs were connected to Sam Toles’ decision to outsource production after he joined B/R in March 2019.
Weeks before the layoffs, a Black employee had pitched an idea for project to Toles and was told to collaborate with an employee from a different department who had pitched a similar idea. Then, the Black employee was laid off, the other employee was moved to a different department and the project was killed.
The layoffs spared a Black female producer who is a temporary employee of B/R and as such does not receive benefits like paid time off or insurance. She recounted her own tale during the June 18 forum in which Toles was among the B/R executives answering employees’ questions and responding to their comments. Multiple current staffers relayed her story, described below, to Digiday.
While B/R’s full-time producers were laid off, the Black female producer was kept on given that she was not a full-time employee. That left her as the sole producer of “Untold Stories,” a video series hosted by Tesfatsion that features professional athletes recounting tales from their playing days. She produced the show by herself, and the show was successful enough that it was picked up for an additional four episodes to run through the 2019-20 NFL season’s playoffs, including a Super Bowl special to be filmed live in Miami, the site of this year’s Super Bowl.
This employee asked her white manager whether she needed to book a flight and hotel to travel and produce the Super Bowl special since she had produced every other episode. She was told no. A white male producer was assigned to produce the Super Bowl special in her stead; the source at B/R said this was a budgetary decision that was made because the white male producer was already slated to be on site.
Whatever the actual reason, the decision meant that the Black female producer was not given a credit on the Super Bowl special that could be added to her professional portfolio. Additionally, the white male producer was awarded “Asskicker of the Month,” a companywide recognition in which the recipient also received $1,500 from B/R. The source at B/R said the Black female producer would not have been eligible to receive the award because it is limited to full-time employees. The Black female producer still was not a full-time B/R employee as of the June 18 forum.
After the Black female producer told her story, Toles initially deflected, saying that many people inside B/R, including Rooks and Tesfatsion, had advocated for her to be hired as a full-time employee. Then Toles apologized for having not reached out to her personally to recognize her for her work. “A lot of people were disappointed in his response,” said a current B/R employee.
There were also people disappointed in Toles’ hiring and subsequent leadership. Toles did not respond to an email informing him of details concerning him reported in this article.
‘Not the change we needed’
For more than a year, B/R had an open position for a chief content officer. Leadership told at least some B/R employees that they wanted to bring in Black candidates and candidates of color to interview for the job. Some Black employees were asked to recommend candidates and offered up Black executives that had experience within sports media, having worked with companies like LeBron James’ media company Uninterrupted. While Black candidates accounted for roughly 30% of the people considered for the position, ultimately none of the Black candidates were hired, according to a former B/R employee, and B/R tapped Toles for the position.
The hiring of Toles was meant to position B/R to break further into traditional Hollywood, to develop more original shows and movies to sell to TV networks, streaming services and digital video platforms. However, some B/R employees disagreed with the hire because Toles does not appear to have experience in sports media. Before joining B/R, he had served as svp of digital and new platforms at MGM where he struck a deal with Vudu, a streaming service owned by Walmart at the time, to produce an original show based on the 1980s film “Mr. Mom.” Prior to MGM, he had worked at various entertainment companies, including Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, Vimeo and FremantleMedia, with roles that spanned programming, production, marketing and business development.
The announcement that B/R had hired a white male executive from Hollywood and with no apparent experience in sports media or media that is connected to Black culture upset many of B/R’s Black employees, according to those employees who spoke to Digiday.
“I knew right away with Sam that he was not going to be that change that we needed in order to get better when it came to diversity,” said a former B/R employee who had worked within Toles’ organization, which is called “Voice” and includes its editorial, social content and studio teams.
Multiple current and former B/R employees who worked with Toles described him as aloof, pointing to Toles’ office as emblematic of this detachment. Toles is one of the few members of B/R’s leadership team that sits on the second floor. When he first joined B/R, he worked out of a transparent glass office near the floor’s entrance that had previously served as a conference room and could be seen into from the floor’s main hallway. At least 10 months into his tenure at B/R, Toles moved his office to a more secluded location on the second floor to be closer to B/R’s studio team, which he worked most closely with on the original programs that B/R develops to sell to TV networks, streaming services and digital video platforms.
“They ended up fogging the glass [to Toles’ new office] so you couldn’t see in it,” said a former B/R employee who had worked within Toles’ department. Other employees confirmed that the glass to Toles’ office was no longer fully transparent.
Toles’ decision to outsource production created a level of mistrust among some employees within his organization. When B/R switched to working remotely in March because of the coronavirus crisis, Toles created a program called “Pitchfest” for employees to pitch ideas for projects, such as new shows ideas, that B/R could develop. Employees’ whose ideas were picked for development would be rewarded with prizes such as $500. However, if someone’s idea were chosen, that person was not guaranteed to work on it.
The B/R source said that Toles’ meaning was that, if a person pitched a concept outside their particular realm of expertise, they may not be solely responsible for developing it. However, without that being made explicit in Toles’ note to employees, current employees who spoke with Digiday said the perceived risk of not being able to work on a project could mean that the program would not be an opportunity for employees to grow by pitching projects that extend beyond their existing roles.
On June 22, the day before Mittman’s departure was announced, Toles emailed B/R’s Voice organization; the title of the Voice team in B/R’s email distribution list is “Team Sam.” In his email, Toles wrote that he planned to schedule a two-hour meeting to take place during the work day for all members of the Voice team to ask questions and provide feedback to Toles and his deputies, which include svp and gm of B/R Studio Rachel Brill and svp of programming Bennett Spector.
Current employees said that Toles never set a date for that meeting, while the source at B/R said that the meeting was scheduled for noon EST on June 24. Either way, the meeting that took place on June 24 did not end up being the two-hour forum that Toles had described in his June 22 email. Not only was the calendar invite scheduled for just one hour, it only actually lasted for about 20 minutes, according to current B/R employees. “He said, ‘Enjoy the free 40 minutes I’m giving back to you,’” said one employee who participated in that meeting.
‘The emotions of feeling voiceless’
Around 7 p.m. ET the night before the June 11 all-hands meeting, B/R employees were asked, via an emailed questionnaire, to submit questions that Mittman would field during the next day’s meeting. B/R employees who received the questionnaire and spoke to Digiday said they took its late sending as an attempt to limit the number of questions submitted. Employees submitted more than 125 questions. Mittman answered less than a handful, according to employees that participated in the meeting; the source at B/R said Mittman answered roughly six questions — and the meeting ended after roughly an hour.
“Nothing hammers home the emotions of feeling voiceless like the number of questions left unanswered in that all-hands,” said a current B/R employee.
While a two-hour listening session was scheduled for 5 p.m. EST the following Monday for employees to provide further feedback to B/R leadership, employees were dissatisfied enough after the June 11 all-hands that a petition was started to ask for an open forum to be scheduled for employees to speak with leadership. The source at B/R said the June 18 meeting had already been scheduled, but employees dispute that.
The June 18 meeting brought to light multiple examples of B/R’s diversity issues, like the black female producer who was not allowed to produce the Super Bowl special. One of the examples that alarmed employees the most was a comment that Mittman had made in a sales meeting in the first quarter of 2018 during which he railed against the company’s dismal sales efforts that put B/R at risk of missing its $140 million revenue target for the year.
According to multiple current and former B/R employees who had either been in that meeting or been told of that meeting by attendees as well as emails sent by B/R employees in 2018 that quoted Mittman’s comment and were viewed by Digiday, Mittman told the sales employees, which included Black employees, “I fucking own all of you.” While the emails quote Mittman as saying “fucking,” some accounts disputed whether he swore.
“That shows the issue of Bleacher Report. That was said two years ago, and it wasn’t until shit hit the fan that it really looked bad,” said a current B/R employee.
“Stories like that with Howard bear witness to the systemic issues with his hiring practices and the culture he developed and the issues that branched out,” said another current B/R employee.
Addressing these issues is now the responsibility of Turner Sports. Following Mittman’s departure, Daniels has assumed oversight of the publication, and B/R execs, including Rapp, Romaine, Toles and chief operating officer Alex Vargas, now report directly to executives inside the parent organization.
Current B/R employees are cautiously optimistic that changes will be made after seeing Daniels sit through the entire five-hour forum. “On the WebEx link at the bottom, I made sure I could see his face during the entire duration. He didn’t zone out. He didn’t take any calls. He was very attentive, and I think he was really taking everything in,” said a current B/R employee.
In an email sent to all B/R employees on June 19, the day after the forum, Daniels wrote that changes are coming and that he would have more to share in the coming days. Four days later, Mittman’s departure was announced, and since that announcement, Daniels has reached out to some B/R employees to better understand the issues inside B/R.
However, Turner Sports has its own racial diversity issue to address. The diversity report shared with B/R employees in June also included statistics for the publication’s parent organization. As of February 2020 and excluding B/R, 26% of Turner Sports employees were Black, and Black employees represented 23% of executives at the vp level and above. But, of the vps and above on Turner Sports’ ad sales team, none were Black.
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