Bleacher Report’s House of Highlights eyes soccer as a new growth area

Bleacher Report wants more Americans to fall in love with European soccer.

Armed with UEFA Champions League and Europa League rights in the U.S., courtesy of parent company Turner, Bleacher Report’s master plan is to leverage its social reach to spotlight stories on soccer culture and European sports stars, as well as the matches themselves.

Part of the plan to build its soccer fan base in the U.S. involves tapping into the popularity of House of Highlights, its Instagram account dedicated to sports highlights, which has 8.3 million followers.

Soccer stars like Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi are already well-known globally, but there is scope to build the brands of other footballers who are big in Europe yet aren’t stateside, such as Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., according to James Grigg, director of international operations for Bleacher Report. That’s what Omar Raja, who runs the House of Highlights account that Bleacher Report acquired in 2015, has done already for NBA players.

“What Omar has done with the House of Highlights is pick out the icons in basketball and create great content around them. We will look for similar things for soccer,” Grigg said. “We have a lot of global icons in the game where House of Highlights and Omar can tell their stories, particularly around the intersection of sport and culture.”

Bleacher Report has prepared a list of players that will likely resonate with U.S. audiences, according to Lee Walker, global managing editor at Bleacher Report. He wouldn’t name specific players, but he said they typically have strong social media followings, off-field personalities and personal style, which appeal particularly to younger audiences.

Content around those players will then be supplemented with Champions League match highlights, in-game clips and post-match highlights, which will run on the House of Highlights account and Bleacher Report’s main social handles. Twenty percent of the followers of the @brfootball Twitter account, which posts purely about European soccer, are from the U.S., while 12 percent of @brfootball’s Instagram followers are from the U.S., according to the publisher.

The U.S. Bleacher Report and Turner teams will handle broadcasting and streaming the matches, and the London team will take the lead on digital distribution, though all will collaborate heavily. The three-year UEFA rights deal doesn’t start until August, so Bleacher Report has started building momentum by posting other soccer-related content. The idea is to also grow interest via culture-related content about the sport’s players ahead of the FIFA World Cup, which starts in June and excludes the U.S. national team.

Last weekend, the London team started posting content that spotlights how European soccer players have recently referenced global cultural moments, in order to pique the interest of U.S. audiences that may not understand or care (yet) about the outcome or magnitude of certain team rivalries and matches. For example, Bleacher Report posted an image on its social accounts of Manchester United players celebrating their important win over Chelsea on Feb. 25 with the “Wakanda forever” gesture, a move from Marvel’s box-office hit “Black Panther.”

“Sport is all about storylines and narratives,” Grigg said. “[European] football is a big soap opera just like the NBA is, in terms of players moving teams, changing managers and celebrating on pitch in culturally relevant ways. We can help tell all that.”

Turner has strategically used Bleacher Report as the bridge between young fans and its traditional subscribers, according to Aaron Duckmanton, head of marketing for video tech company Grabyo. “Bleacher Report understands that the best way of reaching and engaging this [next-gen] audience is through mobile, social video, particularly on Instagram and Twitter, where interaction with influencers and sports personalities happens in real time,” he said.

“With most next-gen fans’ viewing habits driven by fashion, lifestyle and influencer content, Bleacher Report is leading the way when it comes to tapping into what content modern audiences want and what platforms they want to consume it on, something other publishers and broadcasters can learn from,” Duckmanton added.

Taking a player-led approach in the U.S. for Europe-based footballers is smart, though unforeseen commercial challenges may arise, according to Daniel Ayers, consulting partner at digital sports agency Seven League. “The challenge is that those global superstar players attract followers from a genuinely global audience, which may or may not be of interest to domestic U.S. sponsor partners,” he said.

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