Bleacher Report Raises $22 Million, Aims For New Verticals

Sports media site Bleacher Report has been on a big publicity push this week and now it’s clear why: The company announced today that it’s raised $22 million.

The round was led by Oak Investment Partners, with Crosslink Capital and Hillsven Capital contributing. Oak has previously invested in companies like the Huffington Post, Demand Media (NYSE: DMD), Federated Media Publishing and Kayak and Oak partner Fred Harman will take a seat on Bleacher Report’s board.

Oak will help Bleacher Report expand its publishing model “into other verticals where content consumption and creation is driven by passion and social engagement,” Harman said in a statement. The company will use the funding to build new content and expand into areas like video and mobile.

This new round brings Bleacher Report’s total funding to $40.5 million.

Earlier this week, Bleacher Report announced the hiring of five new, salaried “Lead Writers”–the well-known sports writers Dan Levy, Matt Miller, Dan Rubenstein, Josh Zerkle and Bethlehem Shoals–as part of an effort to improve the quality of the content on its site, which has become notorious for its Google-gaming SEO stories and slideshows. The company also hired King Kaufman from earlier this year. In an interview earlier this week about the new writers, co-founder and VP of content Dave Finocchio told me that the point of hiring the new writers was to bring some “actual, honest-to-god names on board.” All five are on salary and range between “full-time and very seriously part-time.”

The “grand misconception about Bleacher Report” is that it’s “all SEO fodder,” Finocchio said. “I’ll go open kimono and tell you that in any given month, 30 to 35 percent of our traffic comes from Google (NSDQ: GOOG). We definitely wil optimize our content for search. We do very well with it. [But] what people don’t know is that 30 percent of our traffic is direct and growing faster than any other sort of traffic.” (The remaining 30 percent, he said, comes from referral sites.) Therefore, “it’s important to brand ourselves as a source for truly original, thought-provoking content.” Comparing Bleacher Report’s new strategy to that of sites like Grantland, Finocchio said of Bill Simmons’ site, “It’s great that they’ve put an onus on the quality of writing and sports journalism but I’m not sure that everything they’re doing is totally savvy from a web consumption point of view.”

In that conversation he hinted at some of the other ways the company will invest: “You’ll see us build some new, innovative content formats. That’s an area where we’ll continue to invest a lot of our resources, to make sure we’re providing a cutting-edge experience to writers.” He said he couldn’t “give away what [the new formats] are going to be.”

In other sports site funding news, Awl-esque sports writing startup The Classical is about halfway toward its goal of raising $50,000 on Kickstarter. Bethlehem Shoals, one of Bleacher Report’s new writers, is also a founding member of The Classical. “We know it’s ridiculous for us to throw out a bunch of names and ask for money,” he told Nieman Journalism Lab today. “But we hope the cumulative affect of our track record speaks for themselves.”