The Underdog Story Modernized: An Interview with WAVE Sports
By Bree Brouwer · May 07, 2019
WAVE is the #4 sports media publishers on social, and if you haven’t heard of them, that may be because they’re just 18 months old. Driven by the philosophy that modern-day sports are a conversation between fans, teams, and creators, WAVE has built a dedicated community of over 30M followers, 1.2B views per month, and 75M engagements per month across all its platforms.
How did WAVE grow its empire so quickly in just two years? By pinpointing competitive advantages in the digital video space through deep fan engagement. For WAVE, it’s no longer about the highlight reel — it’s about staying agile and keeping its content muscles flexed as audiences react to new niches, athletes, and personalities.
We had an interview with WAVE Founder and COO Ishaan Sutaria about the sports publisher’s thriving social video strategy. Check out his insights below!
Tubular: Let’s jump into an important question — is sports an underserved audience on social video?
Ishaan Sutaria: Sports fandom is increasing, and the value of sports franchises has risen year over year. However, incumbents in digital media are losing market share at a very rapid pace. They are not adapting to new content formats, new ways of consuming content that consumers want.
We here at WAVE grew up watching SportsCenter, and it shaped our philosophy. We remember having to wait forever for that single highlight we wanted to see, which doesn’t work for today’s audiences.
Our belief is that you need to give consumers what they want, where they want it. This is especially true in today’s sports world which is full of fans eager to consume digital content related to their favorite franchises and athletes as soon as they can get their hands on it.
T: How does this philosophy of giving consumers “what they want, where they want it” feed into your video strategy?
IS: We’ve always been in awe of the energy of sports fandoms, and want to capture that as we build communities and curate content for them.
We do this by being distributed across many of these fandoms and properties. When we go to market with a new series or piece of content, our goal is to target more fans and be more viral than any given fan page. If we made a piece about Kyrie’s Kicks, for example, that can live across multiple channels because it has a broader sports applicability, and it can also live on channels as granular as a Kyrie-specific one.
Our philosophy also means we want to see organic fandom. If we notice a sport is being shared more than another (maybe rugby, for example), it signals to us there’s a content white space we can dominate. We can then get into areas we’re not covering because we know how to quickly build viral channels from the ground up.
As part of our strategy, we also identify creators who have the right voice for each community so we can work with them. If they are effective, they’ll become the voice of the WAVE brand to our community. We currently have a network of 130 creators that are authorities for a given niche, and in turn, they become part of our distribution model.
T: How does WAVE measure video content success?
IS: While size and scale are important, we always check if audiences are highly engaged with our content. This is a measure of whether or not they care about what we’re putting out in front of them.
Shares are a very important currency and a marker of virality, while ratios (view/impression, view/followers, engagement/views, etc.) help us better understand what resonates with our audiences.
But predominantly for us, successful content also means that a given piece of content enters into the mainstream conversation of sports. It’s important to tell a narrative from the right angle for this to happen. We ask ourselves how we can package these moments that matter in the right way to capture audience attention most effectively.
T: How does data help drive your success?
IS: Simply put, it helps us determine what makes our content tick. We can suss out and optimize the variables that matter, such as cover images, captions, length, angles, etc. Data also shows us how to operate more effectively with how often we’re publishing, what type of content, and what channels we’re distributing on.
We used to do this all manually, but now with Tubular, we’re constantly scouring the software for competitive data and what our competitors are doing. We’ve grown a lot in every metric since starting with Tubular; it’s easy to get topline views, but now we truly know how engaging our content is.
We also started selling ad products in August 2018, and our win rate has been helped by Tubular. It helps us figure out who to target and what narrative to tell them.
T: What are you proud of from this past year?
IS: Our content! Generally, the approach we take is finding ways to create weekly episodic programming that’s repeatable and scalable.
Our Next Up series is a great example of this. It focuses on emerging high school athletes, the stars of tomorrow’s sports teams. Our data-driven approach helped us listen to our audience’s preferences and respond with this series.
This decision paid off. A single episode of Next Up has pulled in 1.5M views on Facebook, and helped bring awareness to up-and-coming athletes. The attention the series gives to the high school football vertical in particular is incredible; these students are potential Heisman candidates who don’t get as much love as basketball peers. If we can help foster these relationships early on, it can pay dividends in the future.
T: What was your biggest lesson or take away from 2018? If you could change one thing you did, what would that be?
IS: We probably should’ve expanded onto new platforms faster than we did. We were initially afraid to because it wasn’t the same as our Instagram model.
However, once we master social storytelling, we can map our audience really quickly by creating virality. WAVE as a property in April had more views on Facebook than anyone else except ESPN, despite one person managing Facebook on a day-to-day basis. Essentially, we can capture share of voice really quickly because we’re agile.
T: What do you see as some of your unique challenges for video in 2019?
IS: We need to avoid the commoditization of sports content in particular. We want to keep finding the unique perspectives and moments people usually don’t see, and shine the light on narratives that aren’t being told to drive our success.
Basically, the same couple of narratives and the same 10 pieces of content are shared every day within sports. We will have to differentiate ourselves from that.
T: If you could name one insight to learn from your audience (that you’re not already aware of), what would it be?
IS: There’s a perception that some content is low-brow or that virality is inherently bottom of the barrel, but the audience (particularly this next generation of social-first people) expect to see stories that relate to them.
The challenge here is how to adapt classical storytelling for pace and attention spans. If you put something quality out, you’ll see the returns. Our audience is voracious for content that pushes the bounds of what we see on social currently; they’re honest with us, and we try to do the same in return.
We can accomplish this by “stealth-policing” our content and enabling fast feedback loops. We could, for example, implement an Instagram poll and get 30k people to give feedback within an hour; this would provide us with statistically significant data to make decisions about what to continue pursuing. Using these types of processes, we can consistently iterate and refine what we’re putting out faster than anyone.
T: About 4-5 years ago, Barstool Media came into the sports scene, and now almost half of the most-viewed media publishers in this space are digital-first. Where is WAVE’s role in that, and where do you see the space going in the future?
IS: Many companies think it’s hard to map audiences at scale with new demographics. However, we feel it’s never been easier to map intention at scale than it is now.
By being thoughtful and catering to audiences where they are, you can build an audience that generates a billion views a month or reaches 150M people easier than ever before. And if you lean into changes in consumption habits, attention spans, etc. as opposed to remaining ingrained in traditional ways of distribution, there is an unlimited opportunity.
Also, you can run a newsroom effectively with a small team. You don’t need to spend a lot of money or have a massive staff; in fact, you won’t be able to sustain that system. Unless you’re thinking about operations and content strategy around things that are working currently, you can build a successful business! We are proving that companies can be successful in this area.