CEO Q&A: How Whistle Sports is changing sports programming for Millennials

Whistle Sports' John West speaks to Diana Bradley about connecting with younger fans and the YouTube network's global expansion plans.

Whistle Sports launched in January 2014 and quickly scaled to more than 8 million subscribers, 150 channel partners, and more than a billion views by November. To what do you attribute this success?
Our target audience was initially 13- to 24-year-olds, but we are pulling in a lot of 24- to 35-year-olds. Millennials need to have their own version of sports, which consists of short-form content, not live games. That’s what our network is: Behind-the-scenes footage, trick shots, and funny bloopers.

Older generations want to watch live games, while Millennials want to lean in and have a digital and social conversation.

How does your business model work?
Some of the world’s top digital media talents create engaging sports content that they put onto our network, which generates advertising and sponsorship revenue.

We also bring a growing number of major brands to the table that create sponsored videos with our creative partners to help connect their brands with our fans. We will be rolling out other revenue pipelines this year.

Do partners plug you on social media? How do they help bulk up viewers?
Social media is very much a part of where we reach viewers. A brand integration video done with the US Archery Association and Dude Perfect, a Dallas-based collective of YouTube superstars, for example, was viewed more than 10 million times and shared more than 170,000 times on Facebook.

Another video Dude Perfect did was with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. Because it was such a great video, multiple television stations, Web media properties, sports blogs, and magazines all embedded the
video in their sites, helping drive audience and discoverability. That happens a lot.

When we partnered with Subaru to do a video with Frisbee phenom Brodie Smith around the launch of our Xbox app, the automaker turned the video into a more traditional commercial. But it also made a considerable investment in being on multiple places within the Xbox environment. We now have 200 creative partners, who create about 700 videos per week. We are also gaining 150,000 subscribers each week.

You have offices in New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles, and London. Any plans for further expansion?
We have 35 people across four offices and want to bring that up to 70 in the next six months. Forty percent of our YouTube audience is outside of the US and we have a good chunk of viewers in non-English-speaking countries. We are looking at expanding in Europe and, in 2015, we will leverage soccer to focus on Latin America.

How large is your PR team?
Brian Selander leads external communications as EVP, offensive coordinator. We also work with [PR agency] Shift.

How does a Whistle Sports partnership benefit sports leagues?
Partnerships with major sports leagues in the US such as the NFL, PGA Tour, MLS, NASCAR, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media, [a partnership of club owners] are a key part of our content distribution, promotion, and brand strategy.

Our research showed that viewership of live sports on TV among our demographic was dropping off. The purpose of partnering with leagues is to help them improve the relevance of their sport with younger generations on digital and social platforms.

How can brands tap into Whistle Sports?
We support our channel partners in ad sales and branded content integrations. We have created some awesome branded content videos with LG, Gatorade, and Gillette, which are viewed by Millennials as not just a product placement or an ad, but also as an authentic, engaging piece of content.

We have a large and rapidly growing sports-focused audience that brands can reach through multiple touch points to run a comprehensive campaign. In addition, we have sport-specific verticals. For instance, our lacrosse channel has 350,000 subscribers. We can provide good market penetration for a brand that wants to advertise specifically to lacrosse players.

How have earnings been?
Our revenue has been doubling every quarter. In Q1, we had two brand partners. Now we have five. We try to focus on building the community and the audience first, and then begin to authentically monetize second, taking a staged approach.

What is Whistle Sports’ mission?
We aim to recapture what is best about sports. So much about traditional sports content is about who dropped the ball, made the save, got fired, or didn’t make the team. But sport is this amazing vehicle to focus on wins. So we aim to help get people up and moving and get them to reconnect with the benefits of being active.

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