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Inside Bleacher Report, a sports franchise for the digital age

It's 1 p.m., and 18 staffers are gathered around a table dissecting graphics of Steph Curry and LeBron James. They are scrutinizing the type, font and visibility of an image that they hope will go viral ahead of an NBA Finals game.

Welcome to Bleacher Report, a sports site that attracts tens of millions of visitors, many of them from the hard-to-reach key demographics that advertisers covet, 18- to 35-year-old men.

The site, acquired by Time Warner's Turner Sports in 2012 for a reported $175 million, has become a key destination for millennials when it comes to sports news, entertainment and data, all the while emerging as an industry disruptor. In March, Turner announced an additional $100 million investment in the site. Bleacher Report said it has about 400 full-time employees.

The company wouldn't give specific numbers about profitability, but did say it was on the scale of BuzzFeed, which had $170 million in revenues last year. Another source estimated the company revenues north of $100 million.

The New York headquarters of the popular sports site Bleacher Report.
CNBC
The New York headquarters of the popular sports site Bleacher Report.

Only 9 years old — about the same age as the iPhone — Bleacher Report has already taken 30 percent of ESPN's web and mobile traffic, says comScore.

When comparing apples to apples, ESPN still dominates. In April, according to comScore, more than 79 million unique U.S. visitors clicked into ESPN.com and ESPN mobile platforms. Contrast that to Bleacher Report's 30 million unique U.S. visitors, but it does represent a growing threat to the number one sports company in the world. Walt Disney's stock volatility is often driven by news of ESPN's performance.

"One can argue that ESPN has done more to disrupt and grow sports digital media than anyone," said Kevin Ota, an ESPN spokesperson. "But it's tough to be perceived as a disruptor when ESPN is already number one in so many segments of our space."

Bleacher Report's CEO and co-founder, Dave Finocchio, said the site is more focused on social engagement than comScore numbers.

"To be completely honest, we don't really care about comScore anymore," he said.

Bleacher Report’s Chris Simms & Adam Lefkoe taping the “Simms & Lefkoe Podcast”
CNBC
Bleacher Report’s Chris Simms & Adam Lefkoe taping the “Simms & Lefkoe Podcast”

Bleacher Report said it's about identifying and building trust with its young audience.

"It's very easy for people to say everyone at Bleacher Report must hate ESPN. Well. I'm 33 years old, so I grew up on ESPN and that's how I identified myself as a sports fan," said Rory Brown, president of Bleacher Report. "That's not going to go away. ... What is different is young people today are not doing that. Instead, they are waking up and checking their phones. They are going to see our brand, and that's the brand they are identifying with sports."

The site, started in 2007 by four friends who were sports fans, has rapidly evolved — something that Brown said has been an asset.

"We have been competing against brands in the sports space that have been competing for decades. We are not tied to those rules that legacy publishers are, so we can create our own rules and play our own game here," he said.

Some of the things they can do when playing their own game: creating college commitment videos for high school athletes looking to announce their decision in a big way — including one of skydiving; creating a "Game of Thrones" spoof using NBA players called Game of Zones; any assortment of cartoon bodies attached to a celebrity's head in a viral video. It's not the type of thing that a "traditional" media outlet would be doing.

The company has already outgrown its Manhattan office. Its next office will be triple the size of this one. The larger office will be the home of the company's transition from just a sports web property to more of an overall lifestyle brand, expanding into everything from fashion to e-sports.

"If you create good content, word spreads. We care a lot about comments, not likes, if they comment they mention their friends, they mention their friends, it's a domino effect," said Brown.