As sports-centric digital content studio and multi-channel network Whistle Sports continues to turn its focus toward original content, the four-year-old company has parted ways with chief revenue officer Paul Kelly — whom it hired away from AwesomenessTV almost exactly one year ago.
Kelly had been charged with spearheading Whistle’s branded content efforts, and the company has no immediate plans to replace him. Whistle CEO John West tells Tubefilter that the decision was “very amicable and mutual,” and cited the “dynamic changes” occurring within the digital industry. Looking ahead, Whistle’s branded efforts will be headed up by COO Michael Cohen, SVP of marketing brand partnerships Joyce Parente, and VP of brand partnerships Dustin Fleischman.
Noteworthy projects on the branded front, for instance, include Courtyard: Unstoppable, a Facebook Watch series produced in collaboration with Marriott Content Studio that profiles 12 football figures who have broken barriers in their respective fields. The first episode (below) garnered roughly 1.2 million views. West notes that compared to smaller creators who tend to work with a plethora of influencer marketing agencies on brand deals, Whistle is seeking to “up-level” by pacting with bigger creators on more extensive campaigns with higher production budgets.
While branded content will continue to be a huge area of focus — it comprised one-third of revenues last year, and West says that sales will be up in 2018 — Whistle’s top priorities on the heels of its $28 million Series D round in June include developing longer-form original IP as well as expanding into China and Latin America. (Whistle Sports has raised a total of $109 million in venture funding to date).
If branded content comprises 33% of revenues, pre-roll advertising comprises just 25%, West says, while original content licensing makes up the remaining 42% of Whistle’s business. Overall revenues are “well into eight figures,” West says, and year-over-year revenue has increased at a rate of between 20% and 30% over the past four years. The company expects to cross the $100 million threshold in 2019.
These are encouraging figures, Whistle says, in a trying time for fellow digital networks. Kelly’s alma mater AwesomenessTV, for instance, sold to Viacom last month for a reported price of $50 million — far below its last public valuation of $650 million in 2016.
In terms of original content wins, West points to the company’s first Snapchat original No Days Off, which spotlights inspiring kid and teen athletes. The series has amassed 9 million unique viewers since its launch last month, and ranks within the top 80% of Snapchat’s most-watched shows. Whistle’s other distribution partners include YouTube Premium (F2 Finding Football) and the Olympic Channel (Hitting The Wall). Whistle could also conceivably become a content partner for Jeffrey Katzenberg’s still-nascent NewTV venture, after parent company WndrCo tendered a small investment in Whistle last fall.
On the international stage, Whistle has begun to translate its content into Mandarin for distribution on Chinese platforms Baijiahao, Toutiao, and Tik Tok as the first phase of its growth plan there. “Given the Beijing Olympics in 2022, it’s a really good time for us to be over there,” says West, who noted that the company may take on some investor money in China. The second phase will see Whistle cultivate a roster of local creator partners.