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TMZ Turns a Scoop Into a Branding Blockbuster

If you didn't know TMZ launched a sports spinoff, you do now. Late on Friday, April 25, TMZ Sports posted the now-infamous audio file of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling urging his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, who is part African- American, to not bring black people to Clippers games or post pictures of herself with them on Instagram. In his diatribe, Sterling specifically asked Stiviano not to post pictures of herself with former L.A. Lakers star and current investor Magic Johnson or to bring him to games.

Sterling’s comments launched a firestorm that went as far as to where President Barack Obama was traveling in Malaysia. At presstime, there were many reports that Johnson and his investment group were considering making a bid for the Clippers, who this season made the NBA playoffs for the third year in a row. Other notables said to be interested included an investor group composed of Oprah Winfrey, Larry Ellison and David Geffen. Separately, boxing legends Floyd Mayweather and Oscar de la Hoya also have expressed interest.

Last week, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life. Several league owners—including Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets’ partial owner Michael Jordan— have condemned Sterling.

The scoop once again proved TMZ’s ability to break, and then benefit from, huge news.

TMZ Sports Test a Winner

TMZ launched its long-planned TMZ Sports as a vertical website last fall, and in January, the Fox Television Stations began testing the show on several of its stations. Currently, TMZ Sports airs as a strip in six Fox markets: Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Houston, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. It also airs on the weekend in Los Angeles, and is expected to be expanded in that market.

“We’re very pleased and encouraged by what we’ve seen with the show so far,” says Frank Cicha, Fox Television Stations’ senior VP of programming. Fox initially agreed to air the show for six weeks, but has picked it up for another six. It also expects to keep running it throughout the summer and likely will try it in other markets.

The Sterling story has boosted the ratings of TMZ Sports in its six test markets, where it averaged a 0.8 among adults 25-54 on Monday, April 28, according to Fox. The story also has provided a ratings bump to the entire TMZ franchise, including TMZ on TV and TMZ Live. As far as its Web traffic is concerned, TMZ would only say that the story provided “a very substantial increase.”

Initially, Cicha was concerned that TMZ Sports might be too much TMZ for any one TV station, and wondered if Team TMZ would be able to provide enough unique content to fill the new show. That question has been roundly answered, says Cicha, adding that while the Sterling story has played across all of TMZ’s platforms, it’s a unique situation.

Lowering the Triple Boom

TMZ has broken enough of these major stories that the organization has made using them to its promotional benefit into a fine art.

After first receiving the audio file, the organization spent eight days “vetting it intensely,” says Evan Rosenblum, executive producer at TMZ and TMZ Sports. Rosenblum and his team also made multiple calls to Sterling and the Clippers on several days that went ignored, Rosenblum adds.

While TMZ won’t comment on whether or not it paid for the audio file, the organization is clear that it pays for videos, photos and other assets. “Once we get something into our possession we do everything we can to make sure it’s real,” Rosenblum says.

After TMZ Sports posted the story, it began making the audio file available for other news outlets to use. TMZ has always had a policy of allowing other outlets to use its assets for free as long as they credit the source.

Since this was an audio file, “we put our trademark triple boom underneath it,” says Rosenblum. “You can hear it lightly when you listen to the file. Since this was audio only, it was definitely more difficult to brand.”

Team TMZ—which includes Rosenblum, Harvey Levin, Charles Latibeaudiere and several others—also have fanned out to talk about the story on various news outlets, including Headline News, ESPN Radio, with Ryan Seacrest on Los Angeles’ KISS-FM, KABC, Fox Sports Radio and others.

Meanwhile, TMZ Sports has posted as many as 60 follow-ups to its original story—although TMZ did, ironically enough, get the initial, pre-press conference news of Sterling’s penalty wrong before quickly correcting it. “That’s what we do best,” says Rosenblum, “When a story breaks, we follow up with every story we can think of and just keep attacking.”

And this story was a whopper. “We understood the impact,” says Rosenblum. “We understood it was a story that would not just resonate with basketball fans but with people.”