Doug Bernstein — GM at House of Highlights on AOL’s “Digital Mailroom”, Sports Fandoms, and Pitching Social Media M&A

October 7, 2021 by  Chris Erwin

Today we publish our 17th podcast episode. Links to listen and full transcript are below.

This interview features Doug Bernstein, GM at Bleacher Report’s House of Highlights.

We discuss what he learned from launching his own fantasy sports website, predicting the future of sports fandoms, how he convinced Turner and Bleacher Report to buy House of Highlights, why he’s inspired by Faze Clan and 100 Thieves, and fulfilling his destiny as a sports media savant.

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Interview Transcript

The interview was lightly edited for clarity.

 

Chris Erwin:

This week’s episode features Doug Bernstein, the GM of House of Highlights, which is part of Bleacher Report. Doug grew up in Long Island and actually predicted a sports media career in third grade. In just middle school, he was making his own football cards. And while in college, accidentally ended up running the school paper and public access TV channel where he cut his teeth learning how to sell ads, be on camera and inspire a team. Then Doug got his real digital education when he went to AOL to run sports and news blogs. There, he realized that the next fandoms would be powered by user generated content and social media. So, he made the jump to Bleacher Report.

 

Chris Erwin:

At Bleacher, he ended up leading the acquisition of House of Highlights and now runs one of today’s most exciting sports media brands. Some highlights of our chat include what he learned from responding to 400 blogger emails per day, how he convinced Turner to double down on digital, why he is inspired by FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves and fulfilling his destiny as a sports media savant. Alright, let’s get into it. Doug, thanks for being on The Come Up podcast.

 

Doug Bernstein:

My pleasure, very excited to be here.

 

Chris Erwin:

Let’s zoom back a bit and let’s talk about where you grew up and what your household and parents were like. So I think you mentioned you grew up in Long Island, is that right?

 

Doug Bernstein:

That is correct. So I grew up in a town called Garden City, which is a suburb of New York City. It was me, my brother who’s three or four years younger than myself and my mom and dad. And we just grew up in a really, really big sports household. A lot of my earliest memories are in and around sports. My dad loves to tell a funny story like when I was one, he was supposed to watch me and he got stuck on the WFAN call radio. My mom came home, I had a wet diaper crying, screaming, and he was still online to talk about the Yankees. I grew up playing a lot of soccer, watching a lot of basketball, playing soccer, basketball, and lacrosse. And then really just became infatuated with the Giants, the New York Giants, at a very, very young age.

 

Chris Erwin:

I was actually going to ask, what were the teams of your household? Who did you guys root for?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I am a very big and loyal diehard New York Giants fan. My brother has been more Jets but also somewhat of a colors guy. Like if they had good colors, he’d go in that direction. And my dad has always … We’ve never had a set team, but I’ve always been a really, really big Giants fan to the point that I think it scared my parents when I was younger. I remember when I was in the third grade, the Giants had a loss and I put a note under my door. I went upstairs, put a note under my door and was like, “I’m not coming out until the start of next season. Knock on my door, put rice crispy cereal at the door, I’ll eat it, but I’m going to stay in my room until the start of next season.”

 

Chris Erwin:

How long did that last for?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I think it lasted until the next morning. I think my parents gave me a full Sunday, we’re not going to bother him, and then Monday, “You got to go to school.” We went to a lot of St. John’s basketball games growing up, and that was a really formative experience. I loved going to those games with my dad and with my brother and being part of that atmosphere.

 

Chris Erwin:

What did you like about the live experience?

 

Doug Bernstein:

It was just everything. It was so cool to be able to watch the games, but also I think what I really gravitated towards was the people and the connections that were being made. So, every year, there’d always be the same older couple that would sit right in front of us, the same people that would sit behind us, next to us, and kind of those friendships and that comradery. I even remember when you’re in kindergarten, first grade, these people you see them and then you see them again all the way through middle school. It’s a really unique experience to have that. I grew up in a very non-religious household, so we rarely went to church, we rarely went to temple.

 

Chris Erwin:

The sports arena was your temple?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Exactly. So sports was that place where you congregated. I always remember when I’d go to church, there’d be that moment where you take people’s hands and say peace be with you. And I would always feel like when I was at a game, it was the heightened version of that where you’re clapping, people going crazy and having that feeling. So, I love being able to go to games. I think that was really, really formative for myself.

 

Chris Erwin:

You’re going to games with your family I imagine through your early years and in middle school, was there a feeling like I’m probably going to end up in sports in my career in some way? When was that early glimpse?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I remember in second grade I would have to write journal entries, and I would write these five-page journal entries every Monday about the Giants recap. And then every Wednesday would be this three-page recap on the St John’s game. And the teacher was like, “Why are you writing such long things about these sports when you’re supposed to write about what you ate for breakfast and what you did with your friends?” So I remember that very distinctly standing out. I remember very distinctly in third grade, and my mom saved it, we were supposed to write about what it was we wanted to do when we were older, when we had a real career, and I wrote be a professional soccer player or work for ESPN. So I really was not good enough to be a professional soccer player but did end up working for ESPN.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And I was really lucky that I have parents that fostered it where we went to Bristol when I was in fourth grade and visited the ESPN campus. All of our vacations, we went to watch Duke in North Carolina. I don’t know how my mom tolerated all this. We went to watch like US soccer in San Diego. A lot of our vacations as a kid were geared towards going to these sporting events.

 

Chris Erwin:

Oh wow.

 

Doug Bernstein:

It was really fun. I didn’t really have a great context for work because my grandfather had started a company, my dad worked for that company, my uncles had worked for it. So there was always this, “Oh, that’s the path is we worked for this family business.”

 

Chris Erwin:

Was it sports-related at all?

 

Doug Bernstein:

No, no. I like to say they make like widgets. They may start off making fuses for TV, they make computer components, just a lot of little electrical equipment type stuff. So it was the furthest thing from my interest area. But as I got older, I was lucky enough to break into sports and not have to pursue that.

 

Chris Erwin:

I think you had also mentioned too, did you, at an early age, have to create your own basketball cards and fantasy football mag? So you had some sports entrepreneurship in you at an early age too?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I’m definitely putting my sports nerd hat very heavily right now. I was going through all our old boxes of cards, when cards was having a big resurgence of late, and I stumbled across a Kobe that should’ve been worth 40,000 but the edges were dented, that was heartbreaking. But I also stumbled across all these cards that I would make. Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress, Samaki Walker, all of these guys, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, I would made … They didn’t make college basketball cards, so I would make their card. I’d have an index, I’d get the magazine. I’d print up a little … Like cut out the picture, find all their stats, write the stats on the back, give them a little bio. When I didn’t have the pictures, I would draw. I liked to do a lot of art as a kid, so I would do that. I’d make little fantasy magazines and things of that nature which were always really fun.

 

Chris Erwin:

Were these just for you or were you selling these to your friends?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I’d sell them to my brother basically.

 

Chris Erwin:

Keep it in the family.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Right. Me and my brother would constantly be collecting basketball cards, trading them. And then we would build little teams that my dad or my dad’s friends would then judge. So we did a lot of that. We played backyard basketball. In my mind, what I mean is like, “Okay, we’re playing backyard basketball, but we need to make a league out of this.” I was making jerseys in the fifth grade for all my buddies to play in this not official backyard basketball league. So I’ve kind of always had that in me.

 

Chris Erwin:

I didn’t realize that you had such a creative bent to you as well. Very interesting to hear this. I look at you as the data, analytics and strategy mind behind House of Highlights and a lot of the work that Bleacher Report is doing, but hearing you, that you’re making jerseys, making sports cards and like drawing characters and all that, it’s incredible.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, it’s funny. If you were to talk to any of my high school teachers or my wife, I think they would think it’s comical that I started in the data and analytics side because I think I got a two on AP stats and got like a five or four on AP art. So I think they very like, “Wait, what? That doesn’t really jive.” But yeah, I think what has helped me a little bit with the data and analytics side is being able to interpret it more creatively and be able to have … I always wanted to be more on the editorial side, whether that’s a writer or a talent, but I couldn’t write that well, I wasn’t that great of a talent, I was a terrible talent. And then what I always had was I always had ideas, so I figured, “Hey, if I can’t do that, let me at least come up with ideas.” And then nobody wanted to listen to me, so I was like, “All right, well, got to have it rooted in something.” That’s how the numbers came about.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Well, look, I think you got to test some of your editorial and talent muscles when you were in Pomona for college. So I think you made a decision that you wanted to pursue this sports media career. So you went and did media studies at Pomona, and you went from the East Coast to the West Coast to do that. Tell me about when you were at undergrad, what type of work were you doing? What type of work were you doing outside the classroom, and how was that inspiring your future sports career?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I was a media studies major at a small liberal arts school in California, which is really, really fun and enjoyable, but it’s not giving you the most preparation for a post-graduate life. If you want to dissect 1970s cinema, you’re in great shape, but there’s only so many jobs where you’re going to be able to do that after college. For me, I enjoyed school, and I think Pomona was a great college to be able to study media, play some sports, but I think I really found what it was that I loved once I was able to start doing things outside of the classroom. My first experience with that was I was on a soccer team, a teammate came up to me after practice one day and said, “Hey, do you want to work for the school paper?” I said, “Oh man, I’d absolutely love that. I’d been thinking about sports writing and stuff like that for a while, that’d be great.”

 

Doug Bernstein:

So he was like, “Okay, meet me under the campus bookstore, we’ll get going.” And I meet him under the campus bookstore, and I’m all ready to meet the team or whatever, meet my editor. And he’s like, “Hey, here are the keys. This is the office, the whole staff quit. This thing is yours.” So, that was a real baptism by fire, inheriting a college newspaper. I think it was like $5,000 in debt, which at that time, $5,000 in debt felt like $500,000. And then being able to lay out a vision for what I wanted the paper to be, build a staff, execute against it, do some sports writing, like-

 

Chris Erwin:

I have to ask, in that moment, did you get more excited where like, okay, there’s a little bit of shock value here, I’m going to have to build this from scratch, but I’m going to make it in my own vision. And I know what that looks like, and I’m going to recruit people that are excited by this and all the above or was it like, I’m not sure if I actually want to take this on?

 

Doug Bernstein:

No, I was way more excited. I was like, this is way better. I wasn’t very enamored with the traditional school papers, like a lot of the stuff that they were covering. So, we ended up pivoting and doing a lot more music and movie reviews, a lot more things outside of the school.

 

Chris Erwin:

It’s like Bill Simmons and The Ringer, it’s integrating sports and pop culture.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Exactly. I was in school in ‘O3/’04 when I started doing this. I think our first cover was the ultimate movie bad-ass was a 64-bracket ultimate movie bad-ass thing. So that was really, really fun and that was it exactly. It was like, man, I get to see out the vision or the creative that I would like for this to be and that was really, really exciting. And the ability to not just do the creative side but also really, really beneficial that I also had to do the business side. So I had to sell ads, go to the local pizza store, go to the local laundromat.

 

Chris Erwin:

Oh, so you were door-knocking? You had to drive revenue for the business as well and help pay off the debts?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, we had to make phone calls. We had to get ad sales, had to like pick up checks and like get a chicken parm at the same time. So yeah, definitely had to do like all of that and it was fun because it was an independent college paper. It wasn’t like supported by the school itself. So it was like … You really had like a P&L that you had to drive for and it was a great experience for a 20-year-old to be able to do that.

 

Chris Erwin:

Did you get college credit? That sounds like the best way to learn how to build like a sports media organization.

 

Doug Bernstein:

I did. I ended up getting school credit. So I think the second half of my junior and senior year, the second half of my junior year and my senior year, a lot of my credits were coming from like independent work. So I think I got credit from doing the school paper. I believe I got … We had a public access college [inaudible 00:13:57] channel that had long been dormant, so I started to be like oh man, what’s this? This looks pretty fun. I had a friend who’s a faculty advisor, like the world’s nicest man. He was 80-something years old. He worked at the theology school adjacent to where we were and so, I was like, “Oh, is there anything I can do for the school television channel?” He’s like, “Yeah, just run tapes back and forth, upload like a thumb drive and make a PowerPoint of like what’s happening this week, who’s speaking.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s great.”

 

Doug Bernstein:

And then when I went to meet him one time, they had an abandoned TV studio and I was like, “Wait, you have a TV studio here?” And he was like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “Nobody uses it?” And he was like, “No, nobody’s used it in years.” And I was like, “If me and my buddies come and clean it out, can we use it?” And he was like, “Go for it.” So me and my buddies spent a Saturday and Sunday cleaning the whole thing out. It was like a three-camera studio, had like a switcher in the other room and we cleaned the whole thing out and every Sunday, for the remainder of the year, we filmed. Two of my buddies did a politics show and then me and one other buddy did a sports talk show.

 

Chris Erwin:

Wait, how did you learn how to use the studio? Of using the switcher and the multi-cam operation, who taught you that?

 

Doug Bernstein:

This guy, the guy who had been like this really, really kind man to go out of like empathy on us and would come like Sundays after church and would help us learn how to film and learn how to do the switchers and I would go home and then whatever Mac editing software I had at the time and edit together really pretty crudely but it was decent enough. Again, it was just a really, really fun learning experience to be able to have done that and then was able to do that and then get credit for internships that I was able do to during school as well.

 

Chris Erwin:

I also had to ask, I think you had previously mentioned that you had some, I think, leadership pillars or philosophies that you had printed in the office at the school paper and I think you still have a copy of this or you still use these pillars today. What is that?

 

Doug Bernstein:

It’s like actually like … I mean I don’t mean to take time to get it but it’s like 10 feet from me, I do have the little five-page write up of like the guiding principles for that school paper that are very applicable 15 years later to overseeing House of Highlights and I think as part of those leadership principles, a lot was about like laying out a very clear and concise vision, allowing everybody to really understand their roles but also kind of like this mantra that I’ve had and that I’ve kind of liked a lot was you don’t have to like each other but you always got to root for each other. And when you think about that, with any team or any organization, sometimes there’s an expectation that oh, we all have to be friends, we all have to love each other and it’s like, that’s not really the case. I think the best case scenario is that you’re all swimming in the same direction. Somebody’s failure is your failure and somebody’s success is your success.

 

Doug Bernstein:

I’m a big believer that like negativity is contagious and positivity is contagious and when you set the framework that what you have to do at the core is root for each other, so when we’re like, any person that we interview with, the last thing I tell them is like this is our guiding principle for when you join our team is like you’re not going to like everybody, we don’t always get along with our coworkers but you really, really, genuinely do have to be rooting and pulling for them and that’s been something that I think has worked pretty well for us and myself today, I think.

 

Chris Erwin:

Doug, you are so speaking my leadership language. I use the word positivity often and I agree and a similar value for us is we have always strived for excellence and that might require having difficult conversations with clients or with team members. I’ve learned, as a leader, that if you always introduce a shared objective, which is like, look, we’re working to do excellent work or to create something amazing, so I’m going to give you some candid feedback for how you can be better, for how we can be better, then it always lands differently. So, I really like how you think about it and I also like whenever you’re recruiting someone to your team that you’re making that expectation very clear upfront and it also kind of … It has a good sports vibe to it as well.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Right, exactly.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, let’s talk about all this incredible college experience and then your early career starts and I think the first job you land at, if I’m right, is at the NFL in around 2007.

 

Doug Bernstein:

That’s correct. So yeah, I had done an internship at the Tennis Channel in Santa Monica, which was really a great introductory experience, just all the internship stuff, logging tapes, doing research, learning to use Excel spreadsheets, all that stuff. Did another internship at NFL Films which, again, was a little bit more of the same. Again, a little bit more baptism by fire. I remember I went on my first shoot. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in programming or production. I went on a production shoot. They said, “We have a shitty job for you.” I said, like, “All right, I’m down. Let’s do it.” First big internship opportunity, they said, “There’s dog shit in the backyard. Can you go pick it up?” And I was like oh, okay. Maybe being a TA is not for me.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And then I did an internship the second semester at ESPN Classic Now, so I felt really prepared for coming out of school and then like most graduates, it’s harder to get a job than you would expect. I think it took me about four to six months to finally land something and that was after school. So I spent a lot of time over that final senior year trying to get a job and getting a break into sports is a really, really tough industry. And I remember I met with a friend’s father who was like … I told him I wanted to work in sports and he legitimately laughed in my face. He was like, “Okay, good luck. Have fun. Talk to me when that doesn’t pan out.” So, I was like, “Oh no, is that true?”

 

Doug Bernstein:

But was fortunate enough to kind of land at the NFL and was just a great way to get my foot in the door basically. Players get a percent bonus based on number of plays they’re in. So, I was responsible for the monotonous job of keying in … Like you had a picture and you key in who was in that play, like get their number, 89, 78, and then just doing that for every play of an NFL game.

 

Chris Erwin:

Players get a bonus for the more amount of plays that they’re in? You’re talking from a media coverage point of view or just from playing on the team point of view?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Like a tight end, right? If you’re in a certain percentage of snaps, you’ll receive a bonus, like a performance bonus. So the team can’t do it and then whatever, agent, player, whatever, their reps aren’t going to do it, so they have the league, as a neutral agent, do this. So, I think it’s a little-known thing but I don’t know if it still exists but at the time, for every NFL game, this is a great job, there’s somebody that just goes behind each field goal and takes a picture of the left side of the field, the center and the right side, zooms out, takes one more and then there are people that just key in those players. So the thing about sports is there’s always these little jobs that people aren’t aware of and that it is just taking whatever chance you can get that helps propel you to that next step because maybe you are in the NFL office, you do see the commissioner. You do get to send emails and experience things. So, it was fun. I was there for a couple of months before bouncing over to ESPN.

 

Chris Erwin:

At these low-level jobs, were you getting more excited about entering into sports media? Were you getting a little disenchanted a bit or was it no, it’s like hey, I like this but I just need to find my path and the role that I’m in is not it but I’m going to get there? What were you feeling in that moment?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Well, I’m excited to have a job, right? You’re just like very appreciative and grateful for a job. It was, I think, a six-month role, so I was like man, I really got to find something full-time. So it was like that appreciation but also combined with angst of being able to find that full-time role and trying to land in a spot that felt like more … It was like growing your career, which is kind of what that position at ESPN ended up being.

 

Chris Erwin:

I think you end up at Versus for a little bit but then you end up at AOL as a product manager at Fleaflicker, right? So, what was that role as a product manager? Because that seems like an evolution of what you had been doing.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Honestly, I was a customer service rep. A product manager sounds way better but the way I backed into it is kind of funny. I worked at ESPN for a year and basically was cutting games down for replays. If you’re ever up at two in the morning watching a college football game, I’d watch it live and then cut it down or I’d re-air SportsCenters, screen SportsCenters for re-airs, like Brazilian and all these other languages, really fun. It was like seven at night to seven in the morning and I always had this window where I would get ratings numbers. So I started to really dive into the analytics of the ratings and was like very, very curious about it just how my brain works. It was like if there’s a [inaudible 00:22:37] game, how does that perform? If it’s two top-10 teams, how does that perform? If it’s close, how does that do? If it’s a blowout, how does that do?

 

Doug Bernstein:

And I started doing this research late at night by myself just to kill time, and I might as well do something with it, so I forward it on to some people within ESPN, like oh wow, this is actually pretty interesting. And they started to share it and started … I would have interview opportunities within ESPN that were kind of in ratings or research, but I was a very ambitious 22-year-old kid. My wife came up to Bristol in Connecticut, which isn’t the world’s most exciting place. It wasn’t for her. So that’s why I bounced over to Versus where I was able to kind of do the ratings and the analytics side, kind of go into TV programming with where I wanted to land and as I was doing the TV programming, I ran into a couple of challenges.

 

Doug Bernstein:

One, Versus which is now NBC Sports, Hunting and Fishing Network, I’m a Jew that’s never hunted or fished, so that wasn’t the world’s best fit and also just I struggled in the role. Like it was a very … A role that required a lot of attention to detail, like real minutiae and that was something that I wasn’t like the best at, wasn’t given that much autonomy, which is probably right for a very, very junior level role and kind of struggled and as I was doing that, I was having a hard time … They were looking to move to Philadelphia. I’m a New York sports fan. There’s no way I’m moving to Philly.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So I had kind of like this couple of months where they were just kind of unwinding things at that office and wanted to kind of keep my brain really engaged, so I created like the world’s worst fantasy website is how I describe it. It had a good name. It was called Keyboard GM and I aggregated fantasy football rankings from different websites. And I went, oh, this is cool. Like maybe, I could do something in digital. I love digital because I was always doing that fantasy football stuff and kind of learning to code a little bit and build like a really janky website.

 

Doug Bernstein:

I also was doing a sports blog with a couple of buddies from ESPN and this was early mid-aughts sports blogging and really, one of the challenges on the TV side, was if you had an idea, it’d be like three months to get in front of the right person, three months of like sounding it out. Best case scenario, it gets approved. It’s like six months of production and then it’s on the air and it’s like the difference between a 0.1 or a 0.12 and it’s like man, that is a tough process. And when I was doing the digital stuff with my buddies, we would just create articles that we wanted to read every day and if they resonated, we’d be like oh, that’s awesome. Let’s do more of that. If they didn’t, we’d scale [inaudible 00:25:11], we’d be like okay, let’s not do that again.

 

Chris Erwin:

This is all on Keyboard GM?

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, there was Keyboard GM, which was the fantasy football website and I had … I think it was like sportsblog.net, going way back for you, [inaudible 00:25:21] sportsblog.net and then that was like that was where we just kind of blogged. So there were two separate things that I was doing in the digital space. I was in this period where I was just trying to find something to continue to work in sports. Ideally, wanted to get into digital. My mom sent me this job, it was like a product manager at a fantasy football website, and I was like all right, let’s go. It’ll be great.

 

Chris Erwin:

She sent you a newspaper clipping with like a red circle around it?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, pretty much. It really was a customer service rep job at first and people always like to say they started in the mail room and be like that lot, right? I always like to say I started in the digital mail room because this is like a classic AOL thing where they bought a fantasy football website. They didn’t tell any of their existing users. They just transferred them over to this new website. So, I was answering like 400 to 500 emails a day from customers about, “Hey, why are you transferring me? Where’s my lineup? Where’s my all this?” But it was a really kind of rewarding experience. I learned a lot about how to interact with your audience, your customer, your consumer.

 

Doug Bernstein:

When you’re playing in the world’s most detailed fantasy football league where it’s like 32-team keeper league with full IDPs, like you really have a level of understanding for your users that kind of is not surface level. Like you get to know users on a one-on-one basis. You get to know who your fans are, how to cater to your super fans, how to understand what really is an issue and what really isn’t an issue and work side-by-side and there was a programmer that founded it, a guy named Ori Schwartz, who was really beneficial in that he talked to me about what a roadmap is, which is something that I had no idea before, right? And really coached me up on the way of the digital world in a product and how to think not just of this week or next week but three, six months, a year out and then also taught me a lot, become somewhat thematic over the course of my career is about being a startup within a bigger organization.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, Fleaflicker was kind of this very small startup within AOL sports and within this mess of AOL Time Warner ecosystem and then that has played out really similar when like Bleacher Report got acquired and it’s like okay, a lot [inaudible 00:27:33] and then when we acquired House of Highlights, I had the same thought. Like I hearkened back to it and was like oh wait, what worked for Ori, this one guy, was like just a lot of autonomy and freedom and not trying to be micromanaging. And when we acquired Omar and House of Highlights, it was that same mindset.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, I was able to do that fantasy football side of things for about a year or two and then what happened was, because I had the analytics [inaudible 00:28:00] ratings research background, they said, “Hey, could you start pulling numbers for Fleaflicker, the fantasy football website?” And I said, “Sure, would love to.” And then because nobody else was doing that and digital analytics didn’t exist at the time, they said, “Hey, can you start doing it for sports?” And I was like, “Absolutely, would love that.” And then before you-

 

Chris Erwin:

I just love how you’re so positive and excited about trying new things.

 

Chris Erwin:

Hey, listeners. This is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we’re putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work and it also really supports what we do here. All right, that’s it, everybody. Let’s get back to the interview.

 

Chris Erwin:

How did you create a culture and a mindset where like today, at House of Highlights, you trial so many different revenue streams and products for fans, right? Sports creator competitions, like talent and street wear collaborations to create new merch designs for different leagues and teams and I’m like, where do these ideas come from and how’d you get there and I’m hearing you talk about your entire history and career, you’re like oh yeah, I’m going to learn how to run a school newspaper, learn to be a writer. I’m going to learn how to run a TV studio and be on camera. I’m going to learn analytics. I’m going to start my own digital blog and fantasy blog. So now, I get it. And so again, you just jump into this new opportunity in data analytics with a very opened and ambitious point of view.

So, okay, I just wanted to note that for the listener. So, now what happens?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, so I mean I wanted to learn, right? My mom was bugging me about going back to like business school or grad school or whatever it might be, and again, I just loved digital media, like just my own internal self was like why does this happen? Why does this happen? Like what if you did this? Like how do you grow a sports website was of immense interest to me. So at a time, we were living in the city. My office was about five blocks from where I lived and my wife [inaudible 00:30:09] commuted into Queens. So she would have to leave for work at about six o’clock.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So I would go with her every morning and then I’d be in the office by six o’clock and this is AOL. People aren’t strolling in till like 9:30, 10:00. So for three and a half, four hours, I had the office to myself basically and I was responsible for creating a daily report that looked at 40 different properties but it was like AOL cut it up every way, like puppies, kittens, kids, dogs, like you name it, they had it and really was able to understand like that was my [inaudible 00:30:41] essentially, was like come in every day, and I’d study the metrics for home page topic from search topic, from engagement, what articles did well, what articles didn’t do well, what writers did well and just every single day or five days a week was responsible for like not just churning out this report but also really starting to like internalize what correlated to the numbers.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And I spent a lot of time sitting with the editorial team and there was a really incredible editorial team at AOL at the time, guy named Randy Kim, and I just had too many ideas than I knew what to do with and I needed to check myself and learn like okay, well, this is what the writer’s thinking about, this is what the editor’s thinking about, this is what the editor-in-chief is thinking about, these are all the things that we’ve done in the past and why your idea doesn’t work, this is what the designer thinks about, and I think really learning before doing helped me a lot in that role.

 

Doug Bernstein:

That was a big thing was there were people that would come in straight out of grad school that were, I’m sure, way smarter than me and way better with numbers but I think one of the things that worked to my benefit was that I had spent an inordinate amount of time listening and learning and gaining the trust of the people that I was going to be working with. So when I gave a recommendation based on numbers, it wasn’t just like oh, here’s the numbers, right? It was like where here’s a number guy, like again, this is like money ball days where like get the number guy out of here. It was like really trying to be deferential, especially at first and I put a big focus on like I would say like not try and be a weatherman breaking into the numbers but trying to be a doctor.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Not just saying like hey, the temperature was this, it’s going to be hotter or colder, like up or down but really trying to be prescriptive in terms of saying like okay, this is the problem. This is what’s going on and these are potential solutions for how you can solve it.

 

Chris Erwin:

I think a theme of your career is making sports more engaging and relatable for younger audiences. So, I think like as you start to look at some of the analytics from these 40 different AOL properties, what were a couple revelations that you were getting in either the mid-aughts or in around 2008 to 2011 that maybe you were seeing that others weren’t? That you leadership was like whoa, Doug, you really get this in a unique way, what was that?

 

Doug Bernstein:

So a lot initially was focused on search and I think a lot of it was that had traditional newspaper people that thought of things a certain way. So you write one story on one topic at a particular time and what we were starting to see, especially on that search perspective was, the interest wasn’t just when the editorial staff dictated it, right? So if we did a mock draft, an NFL mock draft mid-season, like historically, you only did mock drafts like the week before the draft. Like it was like sacrilegious to be able to do a mock draft like anymore than like a week or two out but when I was like, hey, if we could do a mock draft at the mid-point of the current season, I think it would do really well or at like the end of the college football season, we would see that do really, really well. And I was like oh wow, like there’s a level of interest and engagement here that’s not being met yet. People were interested in it. They were searching for it but there was nothing there for them. That was a big one.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And then the other big one was just like if a news story broke, for a while I worked really close with the AOL news team. So like if a tornado happened or anything that is newsy, politics, whatever, traditionally, they would just write the one AP-style recap and what we started to do is say like okay, well, let’s not just write the recap, let’s write like five … And now these are so commonplace that like it seems silly but at the time, nobody was really doing this, the five things you need to know on this topic, breaking down like who is this person that was at the center of this. Not just having one story of recapping a news event but having like a template of 10 to 20 different stories that depending on like is this a tier one event or a tier three, you’d be like okay, we need five stories on it and these are the five potential stories that you could do.

 

Chris Erwin:

So like early inspiration for Buzzfeed. You were like one of the first listicles.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Right, it was. It was like, at the time, Buzzfeed was struggling with SEO and I remember thinking, it was like it’s not that hard. They were doing a lot better in a lot of other stuff but yeah, like at that time, like I think some of the stuff at AOL was doing … And Bleacher Report and Huffington Post were like very early days like digital media optimization, SEO optimization.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. You just brought up Bleacher Report and I think that that’s a great segway actually into your transition to the company, which I think happened in 2011. So tell me what caused the move, what was the impetus and then what was your first role there?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, so the impetus was two-fold. So partially, was based on my current situation. So I was at AOL and they had shuttered AOL Sports FanHouse, which was their internal AOL sports brand and I was working on everything but sports, doing analytics and that just didn’t sit quite well. I was constantly reverting back to thinking about what can I be doing in sports and then on the flip side was over the final couple of months that AOL Sports FanHouse was around, I was responsible for looking at our Comscore reports and I would see in Comscore, our competitors and who was doing what. Every month, I would see Bleacher Report coming up and I would see next month, them coming up and I was like, oh, this is really interesting.

 

Doug Bernstein:

One of my friends from college went to school with a couple of their founders, so I was familiar with it and yeah, I worked with a guy at AOL Sports who ended up going over there as an editorial lead. He said, “Hey, we’re in the market for somebody to do analytics and I think you would be an interesting person for it. Would you be open to it?” And I was like, “Absolutely. This feels perfect.”

 

Chris Erwin:

So, you jump over to Bleacher and I bet you’re thinking you’re really into sports and digital. It’s an early stage company. Because I think Bleacher was started around 2005, if I remember correctly.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, probably, like yeah, around there, ’06, ’07, like ’05, ’06, ’07.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Like when it was actually like official, official is probably to be debated but somewhere around there for sure.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, it was probably in your mind, the ability for you to shape the company as well, to get in early?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I was employee number 40, which at the time, I didn’t really contextualize but now, being a little bit older, it’s really special to be in on a company at that level. To me, it felt really well-established but again, having a little bit more perspective on it now, I can see how nascent it really was. I remember when I would tell people I work for Bleacher Report early on, I don’t think anybody knew what I was talking about. So, that was really great and I was doing the analytics at AOL and had some ability to kind of be a part of decision making but really, it was still from like an arm’s length and I think they were being very kind to me. But then, when I went to Bleacher Report, I was kind of shocked, to be honest, that like it was the exact opposite where it was very analytics driven, very much about optimization, very much about giving the fan what they wanted, in particular the younger fan.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, Dave Finocchio, who found it, was one of the founders of Bleacher Report and has been just an incredibly brilliant guy, has been really, really instrumental to my career and Rory Brown, who was my first boss at Bleacher Report, my boss and me were really close. Again, another brilliant guy. They both were really critical in establishing a culture that was very much about let’s try things, let’s look at numbers and let’s try to have fun, I guess, in the process and it was just a perfect fit for somebody like myself that had all of these ideas of what I wanted to have covered in sports and those were shared by Rory, Dave and Bleacher Report as a whole and then be able to go off and kind of execute that and grow it and build it and keep growing it and keep building it and like fail a ton, was super, super exciting.

 

Doug Bernstein:

It was just like an incredibly exciting time to be at Bleacher Report as it was growing from like when I got there, I want to say like sub-10 million uniques to, I think, we reached a point where it’s like 40 million uniques and I think when we got there, it’s like eight million search visits a month to a point where it had 60 million and to be a part of that growth was really incredible.

 

Chris Erwin:

And so, for our listeners, what was Bleacher Report when you started?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, so when I started at Bleacher Report, it was just a sports website with about 100% user generated content. Those were the initial iterations. I think pretty quickly into me coming aboard, we started to have a little bit of an internal team where it wasn’t all user-generated. There were people that we staffed to write certain stories. We began to build out a newsletter product which then ultimately became an app but when I think I started, it was just strictly a website that was largely driven by user articles and that was it. That was the main crux of it.

 

Chris Erwin:

Fast forward to today and Bleacher Report is a multi-platform media brand that’s acquiring live rights and has acquired sub-brands like House of Highlights and there’s probably other things and you’re doing creator competitions and so much more. We’ll get to that story but okay, about a year in though, you were then acquired by Turner, which is you leaving the Turner ship and then going back through this. When that was announced, were you part of those deal talks at all or you just found out? What did you feel? Were you excited or were you confused about why is this happening?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I don’t remember if I … I think I was more excited than not, I think I remember that. And it’s funny because I was like at AOL Time Warner and then I left and then I immediately got put back on AOL Time Warner. I think I’ve been in like four iterations of Time Warner. So I think I was mostly excited, a little bit of trepidation because when you join a bigger media company, you don’t know exactly how that’s going to unfold, how [inaudible 00:40:47] is going to be and I think pretty quickly was like reassured that it was going to go well. So, there were people, David Levy, Matt Hung, Lenny Daniels, who really believed in Bleacher Report and the vision of Bleacher Report and allowed there to be autonomy for Bleacher Report to just continue to grow.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, it was like very similar [inaudible 00:41:08] like everybody was like okay, they acquired it but they just wanted to give it more infrastructure and resources to do what it was already doing. It felt like the same with Bleacher Report. It wasn’t like somebody came in and was like, “Okay, now produce a bunch of TV shows.” It was just like keep growing the digital presence that you have, like keep connecting with the younger audience and I think within a year, I felt really good about that acquisition.

 

Chris Erwin:

That mandate of keep growing a digital presence, clearly that’s worked well for you because I think when I look at your career profile, you had three promotions in the first four years there. So it seems your career was really taking off. Did you feel that you’re like hey, I think I’ve really found my groove here and I feel my career entering into a new inflection point?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I think yes and no. Again, I think like it’s all happening really quickly and at the time, Bleacher Report was really young. So like I think I started at Bleacher Report, I was like maybe 24 or 25 but the founders and the people running it were like 26 and 27 maybe, I think mostly 26. So there was kind of like this natural cadence, like every year we would grow, every year we would get bigger and we would take on … The team would grow with it. So, I was kind of along for that ride and everybody was relatively young and inexperienced, so it wasn’t like in a more traditional company, your promotion cycles are harder to come by but there, it just felt like okay, this is it.

 

Doug Bernstein:

I also think the promotion and everything was very rewarding and satisfying and I’m very grateful for it but at the same point, like I think myself and the team was like just really, really dead set on growing it. Like all the other stuff was like a little bit secondary. Can we hit these milestones? Can we unlock further VC investment? Can we get acquired? Even more so than that, like can we build a big audience? Like we always wanted to chase and be as big or better than ESPN. It was always about this case and everything else was kind of just like a byproduct that was happening alongside it and I think that chase was where the majority … That chase and the audience was really where the majority of the focus was.

 

Chris Erwin:

That chase though, Bleacher Report really evolves from a sports web, call it 1.0 brand to a dominant social media first kind of multi-media company. And I think there was a big House of Highlights acquisition in 2016. So as part of this chase, was there something happening that led you to be hey, look at what Omar is doing, we need to be part of that, we need to own that and were you one of the first identifiers as like hey, we need to make a move here and maybe we should be acquisitive?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, no, 100%. I mean that’s exactly essentially the story. So, I think we were having some early success on social and then I kind of moved into a role of kind of overseeing the larger social org and I think, over the course of the 12 months, we went from kind of like a second and third player in the sports space behind some of the bigger names and then we fast forward a year and we were just so maniacally focused on delivering the best social sports experience that when we picked our heads up in 12 months, we weren’t only the best in category among sports accounts, we were like not only the best with digital media, young digital media accounts, we actually were like top two or three on Twitter. We were like over all. It was like Justin Bieber and then us at the time in terms of overall accounts. The same on Facebook, we were one of the top most engaged with accounts on Facebook and then Instagram. We were pretty early on Instagram.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And we’re starting to reach a point where we were a little bit more mature and the business is kind of solidifying itself. We had been around for a couple of years and Instagram was really new and I started to think a lot more about like okay, we’ve always been a challenger brand. We’ve always been trying to unseat the established leaders. Who is going to do that for us? As we’re so focused ahead, where’s the risk and the risk was like somebody catching us from behind and I was really the mindset that Instagram was going to be, and this is like ’15 and ’16, where it was like still only photos for a while, it just transitioned to video and just like 15 second video. It was like we always went to where the audience was and the audience went from web to social and then inside social, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, like okay, well, we got to figure out Instagram. Very early on in House of Highlights lifespan, I became a really big fan of the account, I think when it had about 500,000 followers, led the acquisition, pitched it when it had 750,000 followers-

 

Chris Erwin:

So, you pitched it to your internal leadership like we should acquire Omar and this company?

 

Doug Bernstein:

At this point, we were having … I think Dave, I think, had transitioned out for a bit. We would have these like quarterly board meetings and I ran through this deck, which outlined our pivot to social, kind of the social monetization business that we’re looking to build and the store that we’ve developed in and around that and on the last slide, I had something that I really did not want to be a throwaway but I kind of was like okay, there’s a good chance this is going to be a throwaway, it was like was this pitch to acquire House of Highlights.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Luckily enough, the people in that room, again, Rory Brown, Matt Hong, Dave Finocchio, this guy named Sam Parnell didn’t dismiss it. They were like, “Okay, make it happen.” And really gave the green light to go about and do it and if you want to have fun, I would encourage you to try to pitch to an established [inaudible 00:46:40] company’s legal, finance and HR departments why you want to acquire an Instagram account, which again, people thought Instagram was just like posting rainbows and things like that, of a kid that, at the time, was 20 years old, yet to graduate college, was taking a decent amount of content that he didn’t have ownership of and had no revenue other than selling pocket like watch ads for like 15 minutes. That was definitely a very boring pitch for a lot of people.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, did you have to go pitch AOL Time Warner leadership as well? So, the Bleacher Report team was like, all right, Doug, yeah, go get the higher ups involved and like make it happen?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I got the green light from Bleacher Report leadership to go and pursue it and then I had to get Bleacher Report finance people onboard and all that but ultimately, I think, Dave and Rory and other people were responsible for getting the deal done. It wasn’t the world’s biggest deal, so I think they were just like okay, kid, go and do it. We’re not sure we really understand it but you seem really passionate about it and you guys have a pretty good track record.

 

Chris Erwin:

Who reached out to Omar in the beginning? Did you kick off the conversation?

 

Doug Bernstein:

I reached out to him. I think I sent like an overly generic or vague message that was like hey, big fan of your account. I’m from Bleacher Report. We’d love to talk. I think he thought I would come to like copyright him like out of existence.

 

Chris Erwin:

This is on Instagram? Like you slid into his DMs?

 

Doug Bernstein:

No, no, he had an email on House of Highlights. [inaudible 00:48:10] it was like, again, a couple hundred thousand followers, so [inaudible 00:48:13] was like a readily available email address. So I emailed him and he responded like basically like … I think I still have it, I got to find it. It’s like hi, what do you want? And I want to talk about ways in which we could potential partner and we got him on a call like, I think, literally that day or the next day and I think I told this story but it is funny because I call him up, we’re having a great conversation for a couple of minutes and like he just knocks me dead in the track. He’s like, “I got to hang up. I got to go. [inaudible 00:48:44] just signed free agency,” and like hung up on me, and I was like oh my god.

 

Doug Bernstein:

At first, I was like this is a little rude. Like [inaudible 00:48:51] at Bleacher Report. This kid’s like 20 years old. Like he thinks he’s like basically applying for like an internship kind of but he wants to do an internship with Miami Dolphins and he hangs up on me and I was like, oh man, this is not great. And then I thought to myself for a second, it’s like, that’s actually exactly who I want to be working with. Somebody that’s like so focused on their audience, so focused on the brand that they’re building that they’re just going to hang up on like a prospective job opportunity or partnership opportunity and from there, we just got along really well. So, we talked over the intervening months and was able to acquire it on January 1 on that year and the rest is kind of history.

 

Chris Erwin:

Has that purchase price been disclosed?

 

Doug Bernstein:

No, and it will not be disclosed.

 

Chris Erwin:

Don’t worry, this is not the podcast where I’m going to force you to say it. That’s awesome. All right, so Omar comes in and it’s like okay, getting the deal done is part of the battle but then it’s actually like executing against the vision and so this, again, is like you’re an up and coming executive and so the teams are looking at you like hey, Doug, you just made this deal happen but now like, let’s reap what you’ve sown, right? What are we going to do here together? And so were you responsible for setting the plan and making this all come to life?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yes, I mean I became the general manager of House of Highlights relatively shortly after we acquired it. My first job and the way I looked at it, and I referenced it earlier, was really about playing defense. So, for me, it was about I just want to put Omar, who is like basically a savant when it comes to this stuff, in a position where he is not beholden to anything other than growing this [inaudible 00:50:28]. So, basically I was like a left tackle and I would say like 50% of my job was just to allow him to continue to do exactly what he was doing but with the rights of the NBA and with the [inaudible 00:50:42] process for acquiring the user-generated content. So, obviously, I have an analytics background and knew the platform intimately and the two of us would just be insanely dedicated to growing the account.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Like nobody was more dedicated than Omar. Like he lived and breathed it and we would be texting every night at like two in the morning, being like do we need to do this, do we need that? What about this post? Trying to find UGC. Really, really didn’t even think about monetization of think about anything other than let’s grow this audience. That was it. Like everything for the first, I want to say, two years was only about audience and engagement. Like that was the 100% focus.

 

Chris Erwin:

What did you learn reaching out, acquiring a company, really like a personality and then integrating it to your org and being the leader here and the advocate? What was something that surprised you and then also something that’s like hey, this is how I became better from this experience?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Ooh, that’s a really good question. I think in terms of what surprised me is I had somebody that had been primarily on the analytics and content side and I hadn’t really done a lot of the business side of it and I think I had kind of that church and state divide and a little bit of oh, come on, the business side, look at this audience, like you could figure this out. And I think that was one of the things that I really matured on and had to learn how to get better at and was surprised by was just the amount of attention that you have to put into the fundamentals. Myself and Omar flew around the country the first year like going to Seattle, like Oregon and L.A., and all over to pitch the House of Highlights brand and it was that story and being there and really it’s like going to the pizza guy and calling [inaudible 00:52:30] chicken parms for the newspaper.

 

Doug Bernstein:

It’s like that where it’s like you really got to be part of the sale. You really have to understand how does this business make money? How does it scale? How do we build a support staff? All my jobs previous to the Bleacher Report, whether it’s at ESPN Classic Now or AOL Sports FanHouse or Versus, like basically everybody just got let go at a certain point because the audience wasn’t there. I really wanted to make sure and I think this is one of the things that was also really key to that experience was not getting too far ahead of yourself.

 

Doug Bernstein:

People have a real tendency that it’s like oh, where do you want to be in five years? And like really hot media digital startups that were like oh, we’re going to take over the world, we’re going to do this, that and the other, and I remember sitting with Omar and being like, “Dude, the most important thing is that like first and foremost, that we’re around. That we don’t take that for granted. That we’re building a business that’s sound and that’s sustainable and that could employ people and be successful, not just for the next year or two years but really be successful for the next, hopefully, 20 to 50 years.”

 

Doug Bernstein:

And that was a really, really big part of it was trying to build a foundation for a business that made sense and that wasn’t just like trying to chase every trend or trying to spend every potential dollar but really trying to be really disciplined and focused.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, and that could even lead to conflict with the team that you acquired, like with Omar, for example. You’re the GM. You have a vision for this. This needs to integrate well into the company. We need to be here for the next 20, 30 years and you have to put your foot down on that, right? And the company was trusting you to make that happen?

 

Chris Erwin:

I liked your answer. That was definitely very compelling. So, I’m now curious, fast forward to House of Highlights and Bleacher Report today and I think a lot of peers and a lot of companies look at what you guys are doing, Doug, being like this is like this whole test/learn/iterate/improve culture that clearly you’ve had in your 15-20 year career. That is something that you definitely deploy as a leader of this multi-platform sports brand and so I’m curious, what’s a quick snapshot for listeners of here’s some of the big recent moves that we’ve made…but I’m also curious to hear when you talk about really catering to Gen-Z sports culture, what are you not doing that you guys should be? What are you thinking about next that caters to this next generation of fandom?

 

Doug Bernstein:

The way we look at it is like we see ourselves as really being on the front lines of what’s resonating with a younger sports audience every day across TikTok, YouTube, Instagram. We’re posting anywhere from like 10-25 posts and all of those posts serve as like signals to help better inform what our strategy needs to be in the moment but also going forward. We also do a ton of research to just better understand the space and what we’ve really started to see and I think you’ve kind of hit on this earlier, at House of Highlights what’s kind of this middle ground is this fundamental shift from publishers towards personalities and a big part of the acquisition of House of Highlights was recognizing that shift and trying to find a hybrid and kind of Omar being something that … And House of Highlights being something that sat in the intersection of like publisher/personality.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And what we’ve seen is this shift increasing. So, I was just looking back at like a doc from 2018 where we lay this out where it’s like we were really early to social and Instagram. We really want to be early to this shift towards personalities and in particular, the creator space. So we’ve had a lot of success this past year of starting to create content in partnership with creators. So we’ve done our live creator competitions. So, we have done dodge ball was our most recent one. It ended up as kind of the number one YouTube global trend, which we were really excited about. We have a Grand Prix coming up we’re really excited about. We’ve also started to do VODs. We did VOD versions of these competitions. So we did a Highlight House Gridiron or football where we [inaudible 00:56:41] into a house and had them compete to determine who’s the ultimate football creator. We’re doing another one for basketball.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, for me, it’s really about doubling down on what’s working and I think that is where we see is working. I think one of the hallmarks of my career is just kind of like building off of success is part of that [inaudible 00:57:02] process is we’ve never gotten to a hundred before we’ve gotten to like one to two to five to 10 to 25, 50 and 100, right? So there’s this ramp up and I think that’s what we’re really seeing is we’re really seeing this shift, right? If you look at, I think, 10% of Gen-Z aspires to be a professional athlete today where at 35% aspires to be a creator, 50% follow a creator on social media versus only 35% follow a team, athlete or league. So, fandom has shifted and we’re trying to orient ourselves around that shift in fandom and not just kind of go along for the ride but really kind of lead that and we’ve developed really, really good relationships with creators.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, we’re not just trying to parachute in now that creator economy is a buzz-y term. A creator likes Supreme Dreams who is now as big a creator as there is, I’ve known Mark and his family for the last four or five years. Kenny Beecham and Through the Wire, who’ve become really big and influential in basketball, we have worked with them for three years. So, you really have to put it in … And Dan Levitt, who I know is on this podcast.

 

Chris Erwin:

Oh yeah, I have a lot of history with Dan.

 

Doug Bernstein:

[crosstalk 00:58:17] personal friend and incredible business man. We’ve been establishing relationships in this space for a long time.

 

Chris Erwin:

Well, that’s a good point. When you say, Doug, that we’ve really been investing in relationships with creators, a lot of people ask, well, how do you do that? What does that include? And look, that’s a really long conversation but if you were to list out like here’s how we approach creators differently, here’s like the two to three quick hits, what does that look like for House of Highlights and Bleacher Report?

 

Doug Bernstein:

It looks like this, so one is live creator competitions on a scale that nobody else is really doing them. I think that is a big, big part of it. I think the second is creator commentary, right? Historically, sports commentary has been driven either by two categories, one is former athletes or two is traditional journalists and what we’ve seen over time and particularly of late, is a new class really come in and own that and play a major part in that. Now, people seek out creators for their thoughts and their commentary in and around sports and we’ve worked really well in that. So I think that’s kind of the second category. I think those are the competition angle, the commentary, those are kind of the big one and twos of it and then also the incubation.

 

Doug Bernstein:

We’ve incubated creators internally. For example, we have a creator on our team named The Broadcast Boys. They went from zero to 2.2 million followers on TikTok and we’ve helped incubate them to success. We’ve worked with a creator named [inaudible 00:59:46], another TikToker who’s closing on a million who we’ve helped incubate to success on those platforms and then really give them the opportunity to shine, help them connect to a bigger and broader audience that we have and allow them to kind of tap into opportunities that might not be there historically. So, we just signed a creator named Nasher who’s really big in hockey and the opportunity that we present is not just like us leveraging his audience, which is a big part of it, but also him leveraging our rights and him leveraging the ability to appear on linear television.

 

Doug Bernstein:

So, I think that’s kind of how we look at ourselves and the differentiation that we present.

 

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. Very well said, Doug. Two final questions for me before we get into rapid fire. One, similar to your mindset back in 2015/2016, which is like hey, Bleacher Report, we’re ahead of the pack, so who’s coming for us? So, who is that for you right now/who inspires you? Whether it’s directly in sports or another modern digital publisher, who is that right now?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Very enamored and impressed by what FaZe and Thieves have both developed. I think what they’ve accomplished is really-

 

Chris Erwin:

FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Right, FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves. I think what they’ve developed is really, really remarkable to have … To build like the modern vision of like the Cowboys or the Yankees is essentially what they’re doing, right? I think that is really, really impressive and I’m very … I have a lot of awe and respect for what they’ve done and are doing. I also look at individuals, like I take a lot of inspiration from whether it’s [inaudible 01:01:24] and kind of these collector creatives I think are really exciting to watch. What Mr. Beast has done. A lot of like what Night Media has done is really interesting whether … I got young kids who like [inaudible 01:01:36] and [inaudible 01:01:38], how they’ve kind of gone from these social presences, these individual social media presences to kind of these full on really big media brands. I have a lot of admiration for what they’ve accomplished.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And then when I look at the guys that we work with, Through the Wire, Kenny Beecham being a great example; Supreme Dreams, RDC another great example. They’ve developed cult followings and that’s an incredibly hard thing to do is to be able to really build and grow an audience that isn’t transitory, that just doesn’t go like with the scroll but really believes and loves you and I think those groups have really developed that and if you can build anything like that, that’s remarkably impressive and then just on like a really, really small level, like I’m a big US Soccer fan, so there’s a podcast called Scuffed that I have a lot of respect for, up and coming. They do really awesome job like hyper targeting a niche and being as good at it as possible.

 

Doug Bernstein:

There’s a Twitter account called [inaudible 01:02:41] and it’s just like this one small [inaudible 01:02:44] has the most unique voice and I take so much inspiration from this one person and their very uniqueness of voice and their ability to cut through clutter. I’m really like inspired by that. One of the guys that worked for us, Full Squad Gaming, which has become a really big gaming brand on TikTok, I really consume the space a lot, so there’s a lot of things out there that I really enjoy and so, I’m sorry that answer was long winded.

 

Chris Erwin:

No. I think what stands out is that you’re a decision maker and operator and you run a business but you’re also a total fan.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Oh for sure.

 

Chris Erwin:

And I think by being a fan and immersing yourself in just like the content and the creators and the publishers that you think are doing great work, that inspires you and that makes you better, right?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, 100%.

 

Chris Erwin:

All right, one last question before rapid fire. We’ve talked about the evolution of your leadership philosophy. One thing that surprised me in a very positive way is that you had a leadership philosophy from a very early age, when you were running the school newspaper at Pomona. If you were to capture a big evolution in how your leadership philosophy has changed from then to now, also I think in being honest, where do you see gaps or errors for you to improve as a leader to take your career and your team to like the next level, the next 10 or 20 years of you doing what you’re doing?

 

Doug Bernstein:

In terms of where the leadership over the last 10 or 20 years, this time I’m dating myself, has evolved is just a lot of maturation in terms of like understanding the big picture. So I think when you’re younger and you’re starting off, you only kind of see things through like your lens and what I’ve learned over time is everybody is doing their best, sometimes under difficult situations and empathy towards that makes you more productive and the team more productive.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Instead of being frustrated or jaded or like casting something aside because they’re not in agreement with you or they’re not moving as quickly, really understanding like everybody has challenges and everybody is trying to do their best and I think that learning kind of takes those points of frustration where you’re like quicker to lose your cool, I guess, in a way and resets it and reorients it and it’s like okay, let me try again. Let me figure out like where their struggles are, what their challenges are and when you have your own employees, you’re also trying to give them that context whether they’re frustrated with me, whether they’re frustrated with a peer or somebody underneath them, it is … That sends a perspective I think I really lacked at the earlier stages and that I’m starting to get more of but I think there’s a whole world of perspective that I still have to go.

 

Doug Bernstein:

And I think that’s the biggest thing is just like continuing to be open to learning and growing and trying to seek out different and new perspectives. I think that’s a really big part of it. Yeah, I think just in terms of [inaudible 01:05:41] to improve moving forward in terms of leadership. I think I’ve always tried to value people but I think there’s a depth of valuing people and their experiences that the last 24 months has really kind of pushed forward, particularly around DE&I, diversity, equity and inclusion, like I think that’s really come to the forefront and I think everybody, especially myself included, has work to be done on that front.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yeah, I mean I don’t know, there’s like a laundry list of things that I probably need to work on that [crosstalk 01:06:13]

 

Chris Erwin:

You’re very self-aware and reflective.

 

Doug Bernstein:

… like hitting deadlines and things like that but I think the big thing is just trying to gain a greater sense of scale and perspective. I think that’s a big thing.

 

Chris Erwin:

Doug, yeah, before we go into the rapid fire, I’m just going to give you some quick kudos. I’ve gotten to know you, I think I first met you through my colleague, Andrew Cohen, who knows Drew, one of the members of your team, and I think we just first chatted, was it like, six to nine months ago, if I remember correctly? And I remember that first conversation, I talk to people in the industry all the time and you’re like are we going to be on the same page? Do we think the same? Are we going to vibe? And I just remember, I was like, Doug and Drew are just awesome people and I was like, I really like these guys and I get why their business is performing so well because not only do they get it and are they super sharp but they’re grounded, they’re building a great team and they just have a great ethos.

 

Chris Erwin:

So then when I was like oh, I’m excited to interview you for this podcast, some people just fall into their careers. They’re these just unique trajectories that there’s no expectation, that’s unplanned but we were joking about this during the break, it feels like you are completely fulfilling your destiny. Like you were born on this earth as a lover and obsessor of all things sports and community and media and that has been something that started out with your family, with your father in very early years for you and I think that you had a vision for this early on, right? When you were writing in your third grade journals and you have more than fulfilled, I think, the career expectations that you have had and it’s amazing to hear your story and I think honestly, that what I’m hearing is that you’re just getting started.

 

Chris Erwin:

I’ve interviewed a lot of executives, I advise a lot of them, and there’s something I’m hearing in between the lines here. There’s some big moves that Doug’s going to make over the next decade or so. Whether that’s with Bleacher Report and House of Highlights or somewhere else, very excited to follow that and I think that also a second note is your self-awareness around your leadership from how early on that you’ve been thinking about it, I think that really sets you up for success. It’s inspiring and look, some of these questions I previewed with you in advance and a lot, I didn’t and for you to have such thoughtful answers off the cuff, that really shows something about your leadership character.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, kudos on that. I’ve learned a lot from you during this conversation.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Oh, appreciate it. It’s been a great conversation. Excited for the rapid fire, and I do very genuinely appreciate that, that does mean a tremendous amount.

 

Chris Erwin:

Very welcome. All right, so here are the rules for the rapid fire segment. Six questions, answers are to be one sentence or maybe just one or two words, quick phrase. Do you understand the rules?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yes, I do.

 

Chris Erwin:

Let’s get into it. Doug, proudest life moment?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Having my children.

 

Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do less of in 2021?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Eat just crappy, crappy food.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. What do you want to do more of?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Spend time with my kids, that’s the big one. Continue to be able to play with them more, not just kind of like spend time, like active, engaged time.

 

Chris Erwin:

What are one to two things that primarily drive your success?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Curiosity, I think, is a big one.

 

Chris Erwin:

Advice for media execs going into 2022?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Value your people above all else.

 

Chris Erwin:

Any future startup ambitions for you?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Happy where I’m at right now.

 

Chris Erwin:

Very safe, quality answer. All right, last one, this is an easy one. How can people get in contact with you?

 

Doug Bernstein:

Dbernstein, B-E-R-N-S-T-E-I-N, @bleacherreport.com would be the main one. I think I’m also on Twitter as … Let me see. I think I’m dtbernstein on Twitter.

 

Chris Erwin:

Oh yeah, got to look up your handle.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Yup, dtbernstein on Twitter. Those would be the two best ways.

 

Chris Erwin:

You now know how to get to Doug. You can flood his inbox or his Twitter DMs. Well, Doug, this has been a delight. Thanks for being on the podcast.

 

Doug Bernstein:

Been a pleasure. Excellent job. It was great speaking with you.

 

Chris Erwin:

Wow, that was a really fun conversation. I’ve gotten to know Doug just over the past year, year and a half or so and I knew that he had a pretty lengthy sports media career but I didn’t know it went that deep where his earliest memories were literally that of sport and going to games with his family. Pretty amazing.

All right, reminder that it really helps us out when you guys share our episodes. So, if you really enjoyed this conversation between me and Doug, share it on LinkedIn, share it on Twitter, anywhere on social media. It helps other people find the show and it allows me and RockWater to keep putting out these podcasts and interviewing these great executives and it also really helps us if you can go and rate the show wherever you listen to it. If you listen on Apple Podcasts, go and give us a five-star rating, leave a review. It really helps other people find our work and that would really mean a lot.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, appreciate the help, everybody and as always, thanks again for listening. If you have any thoughts on the show, any ideas for guests, hit us up at tcupod@wearerockwater.com. All right, everyone, till next time.

 

Chris Erwin:

The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcast and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter and you can follow us on Twitter @tcupod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck, music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and Branding is by Kevin Zazzali and special thanks to Andrew Cohen and Mike Booth from the RockWater team.

 

Ping us anytime at hello@wearerockwater.com. We love to hear from our readers.

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