An interesting aspect of sports media companies’ push into over-the-top streaming services is the opportunities that can pose for some less-prominent sports that might not necessarily work as well in a linear television deal. We’ve seen that with some of the content featured on ESPN+ (some was already available through free streaming service ESPN3 and on ESPN in particular circumstances, but there’s even more now), with moves like Barstool Sports’ Rough N Rowdy pay-per-view fighting events, and now with some of the stuff featured on Turner’s new streaming service, B/R Live (which is free to try until June).
One new league there is the World Armwrestling League, which will have five two-hour WAL Supermatch Showdown Series events featured on B/R Live, beginning Thursday night (8 p.m. ET) from Chicago and continuing May 17, June 14, July 19 and August 9 from Baltimore, Cleveland, Norfolk and LA respectively. Those events will feature some of the top male and female armwrestling athletes in the world competing in best-of-five matches, with over $250,000 in prize money distributed across the series and a championship Sept. 5 at Turner’s arena in Atlanta. WAL president Steve Kaplan, previously known for his work as an entrepreneur (particularly with SCA, which he built and then sold to Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder’s Snyder Communications), author and speaker, spoke to The Comeback recently about the WAL, and about why Turner and their new streaming service is the perfect partner here.
“Some of the things with Turner, how they approach their properties as true partners is really important,” Kaplan said. “B/R Live, obviously it’s a digital platform, and that’s perfect for us. Our sport is such that we can create tremendous stakes. Someone can come in and they can very quickly see who [a competitor] is. It’s perfect for bite-sized digital content, as well as our two-hour live events. They’re highly engaging and just a perfect fit for a digital audience. And that’s where we need to go.”
“The part that’s really outstanding with Turner is that they’re playing a bigger role than just broadcasting our events. They’re actually partnering with us in areas like driving viewership through their best-in-class social media team they have that does amazing work. We’re also going to be having our championships at the brand new state-of-the-art arena in Atlanta that they built for the ELEAGUE, which is just super. So we have a home, and we have a long-term partnership with a broadcast company that’s really committed to the digital world and all that that means.”
“That’s very different than the linear world of regular TV, and it’s more what our sport is and more directly involved with where we are. Even their campus and their corporate offices, it’s really more like a Silicon Valley tech company than it is a typical TV network. And that’s what makes it a really good partnership. We’re working together towards a common goal. They know the viewership numbers are key, building BR Live and that property for consumers to watch really solid wonderful content, and for us, because we’re in a building-exposure mode, having a partner with the huge reach that Turner and Bleacher Report does is a marriage made in heaven for us.”
Kaplan got involved with the WAL in 2014, and he said he was brought into thanks to, of all things, a trip to Afghanistan to speak to members of the U.S. armed forces.
“My pedigree’s in building businesses, starting businesses, helping others build businesses and doing it for myself. The military asked me to go to Afghanistan to talk to the troops upon redeployment on getting jobs and starting businesses. So we were flying all over the country, a group of us, flying all over Afghanistan, from Kandahar out to the forward operating bases, and I kept seeing our troops, in 130-degree heat, arm wrestling. It was just a very random thing, but it just kind of resonated with me and stuck with me. I got back home, and I got a call from a buddy of mine that asked if I would help them do some marketing for a show that they had just sold to AMC called The Game of Arms, which was this cool show on armwrestling. I went out to just kind of see what they were talking about and I was blown away by these guys, I was hooked.”
“I was not expecting to find full-on, fully-committed, like ripped, NFL tight end caliber-looking guys. I spent a lot of time with them and I just really loved the sport. But more than that, the businesses that I had, most of them are marketing, advertising companies, that kind of thing, so that’s how I kind of view the world. And it was just amazing to me the different stories and the different backgrounds these guys had, and there was this really cool connection with this armwrestling sport that connects people from everywhere. It doesn’t matter. Like, one battle would be an investment banker against a plumber, and next up would be like, a firefighter against a priest. It was crazy.”
He said the way those competitors found common ground in armwrestling was impressive, and it convinced him there was something here that deserved more exposure.
“I just saw that connectivity there and the energy these guys bring. For me, it just kind of came together and I said ‘There’s something global and big here.’ And the more I got into it, the more I understood the community and the more I appreciated the sheer scale of what it is, what a big community it is that can be packaged all over the world. So we umbrellaed it. …And for myself, the part I really loved was the ability to build a sport for today’s marketplace, highly engaging, interactive, social, a lot of using sport as a connector to bring people together.”
Since Kaplan became involved, he said the focus has been on making the sport more accessible to a wider audience of sports fans.
How changed? “We’ve changed the climate of it in a major way. In the past, it was more kind of a basement, backroom kind of a sport, but it’s major now. I believe the way we’re approaching it has really changed the game in a big way. We look at these things as big, immersive events. Even from the fan, viewership aspect of it, they’re kind of in the middle of it. You can get three feet, if you’re at an event, from these larger-than-life world champions.”
Some of that came through extensive prize money, and some came through having matches seen on ESPN’s streaming and international platforms.
“Since we’ve started, we’ve put up over a million dollars in prize money and we’ve legitimized the sport. The presence on ESPN from a global credential got us viewership in 61 countries, and really, rather immediately, we became the world’s largest league. We have over 300 of the top guys in the world and probably over 80 percent in North America are WAL. The rules we’ve changed have made it very viewer-friendly, little nuanced things, but as a fan, it becomes more engaging to watch the sport, where in the past, the way that it was, a guy competing could get disqualified and nobody would even know why.”
Kaplan said the sport is more viewer-friendly now, and it’s a great fit for a B/R Live audience he expects to be mostly young and male.
“We’ve loosened it up, we’ve made it much more friendly and much more appealing to the masses, and I think that’s a big catalyst as to why the growth has been meteoric. And now that we’re with B/R Live, we’re looking for another huge trajectory bump, because our audience is young males, we know that over 75 percent of our viewership, even though we had over 10 million unique viewers watching our shows, which was crazy, over 75 percent watched via mobile or tablet. And it’s a younger audience. So that’s why we’re so excited for where we’re going to go with B/R Live.”
Kaplan said his past experience building companies has given him some tips on what to do and what to avoid.
“If I can be truly honest, I make less mistakes. I’ve seen things that you’ve seen building businesses. The biggest thing for me just on a personal level is with my experiences there, you only succeed and you only succeed big if you have quality awesome people working with you that can collectively drive you. Somebody like Turner, like (longtime sports producer and executive) Ed Goren, who’s our executive producing advisor, (sports business consultant and former World Series of Poker commissioner) Jeffrey Pollack ,who’s on our board, people like that are really helping to drive this. We have several partnerships we’re building as well. Those experiences really help.”
And he added that his experience working on the global business stage is important for where he sees WAL going.
“And for myself, when I built SCA and drove it through Snyder Communications, I had over 4,000 employees in over 50 countries, so I’ve had a lot of experience on the global stage, in the global marketplace. That’s invaluable. Last year, we did events in seven countries in Europe, plus Australia, we did some in Asia. As we grow, learning how to handle things like that is imperative for more rapid growth.”
Kaplan said the way WAL has brought competitors together is something he sees as a key selling point, and something that’s going to help it grow further.
“In today’s world with all the craziness going on, political, economic, on a global basis, the timing for our sport couldn’t be better. It brings people from all nationalities, races, creeds, colors, together. The culture, when our guys are done with the match and it doesn’t matter if they’ve never met before, we’ve seen this, could be someone from Russia, France, Germany, it doesn’t matter. After the end, it could be any color, any background, any wealth, anything.”
“When it’s done, these guys embrace at the table. Prior to that, it’s fierce battles, it’s mano-a-mano, that’s it, there’s no one else to help you there, but afterwards, the respect for the commitment and the dedication it takes to achieve in this sport, that’s the commonality and nothing else matters. And really, as much as anything else, when you look at this and see how big and how successful we’re going to be in the coming years, from the psychological side, I really believe that’s the reason why. It really does bring people together. That’s the thing that locked me in. When I saw it, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to be part of this.'”
The WAL Supermatch Showdown Series on B/R Live begins with WAL 401 from Chicago Thursday night at 8 p.m. Eastern. Subsequent events include WAL 402 on May 17 in Baltimore, WAL 403 on June 14 in Cleveland, WAL 404 on July 19 in Norfolk, VA, and WAL 405 on August 9 in Los Angeles, with all of those events beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The championship will be Wednesday, September 5 in Atlanta. More information is available on the WAL website and B/R Live’s website. B/R Live is free to watch through June.