Published August 17, 2009
Broadband is the new television, as far as many youth sports groups are concerned.
Where youth and high school leagues once chased television deals as the easiest way to market their sport, many now are being seduced by the low cost and easy distribution of broadband services.
“You’re seeing more people trying to capitalize on that as the cost of production goes down and the cost of distribution goes down,” said Doug Perlman, managing director of Accrue Sports and Entertainment Ventures. “We’ve seen some real interesting companies that are creating production kits that are really simple to operate and really inexpensive.”
Even companies that are well-entrenched with TV are looking to broadband streams as the easiest and most cost-effective way of producing video.
For example, America’s biggest sports TV outlet, ESPN, is revamping its Rise Web site to allow for more broadband and mobile applications. And the Pop Warner youth football league is pursuing a broadband strategy that would allow many of its games to be streamed online.
Little League Baseball provides, perhaps, the best example of this newfound interest in broadband applications. In January 2007, the group signed a TV deal with ESPN that pays it about $30.5 million over eight years. The deal runs through 2014.
But talk to the group’s president and CEO, Stephen Keener, and he seems as excited about a relatively small broadband deal Little League signed this summer as he is with the TV deal.
“We have a terrific relationship with ESPN/ABC Sports. It’s the strongest marketing vehicle we have,” Keener said. “But we’ve reached a point where we have a bit of TV saturation.”
That’s where Little League’s broadband strategy comes into play. Late last month, the group signed a two-year deal with Youth Sports Live that is streaming most of Little League’s non-televised tournament games via the Internet. Customers pay $14.95 for access during the season, with Little League getting a small percentage of every subscription sold. There was no rights fee involved with the deal.
Next spring, Keener plans to make this deal available to all leagues for regular-season games, with up to three cameras documenting the action. Any of the group’s national leagues would have the opportunity to opt into the Youth Sports Live deal, and Keener clearly hopes that most do, allowing family and friends to either watch the games live or on-demand.
This year, Youth Sports Live rolled out its system only for the Little League playoffs, including Little League, Junior League and Senior League Baseball, and Junior and Big League Softball.
“If you were told that you could see every one of your child’s baseball games live online, that would be really compelling,” Accrue’s Perlman said. “I don’t envision that any time soon being a compelling advertising model because you’re not going to get the scale. But the subscription model is going to be interesting because of the passion they have.”
The broadband plan is not a money-making venture for Keener, at least not initially. He doesn’t expect mass interest in a regular-season Little League game. But he thinks it has potential to grow into something that could be a nice, small business for the league.
“I think that’s the next step — digital implementation into sports,” Keener said. “Down the road, we will probably have our own Little League network on the Web, providing training, rules and information.”
Mark Lazarus, president of media and marketing for Career Sports & Entertainment, believes these broadband services could start to attract some advertising. The potential is not huge, but Little League Baseball’s typical broadband subscriber would be someone that advertisers would want to reach.
The online system still is so new that nobody has tried to sell advertising against the games that have been streamed this summer.
Lazarus, however, pointed to signage on the outfield fences at Little League fields around his hometown of Atlanta. The ads feature many national brands.
“I look at it as a friends, family and alumni network,” he said. “Youth sports can provide a way for national brands to localize in an interesting way. It’s a small number of people that you can aggregate into a bigger number.”
Little League’s Keener has seen the power of these broadband streams firsthand. His father-in-law subscribed to the Youth Sports Live service at the end of last month to watch Keener’s 18-year-old son Nick represent the East Region during the Big League Baseball World Series in Greenville, S.C.
During a July 31 game when Nick was pitching, Keener’s father-in-law called Stephen on his cell phone to say that Nick wasn’t pushing off enough during his delivery. Stephen, who was sitting in the outfield, relayed the message to one of the coaches.
“I see how valuable this can be,” Stephen Keener said.
Pop Warner also is starting to figure out the value of broadband. Last year, ESPN’s broadband site, ESPN360, streamed several of the youth football league’s playoff games, in a deal that was billed as a “test” to see how well the broadband site could cover the games.
“We’re working with them to expand that this year,” said Mary FitzGerald, Pop Warner’s chief operating officer.
Originally, some Pop Warner officials were nervous that an expanded broadband offering would hurt sales of videos taken from the game. But FitzGerald said those fears were not realized.
Broadband is a natural for Pop Warner, which has not been as successful as Little League in getting its games on TV. Its Midget Division I championship, filmed by NFL Films, has been presented via tape delay on ESPN since 1996. FitzGerald is talking with various media partners about increasing that commitment.
“We have to have the television element,” FitzGerald said. “We are the next logical youth sport to capitalize on the media’s interest in youth sports.”
But broadband also is a big part of Pop Warner’s plans, though FitzGerald sees it more as a helpful application to allow relatives and friends to watch games rather than a money-making venture.
For ESPN, the value isn’t so much with friends and family as it is with the kids themselves. That’s one of the reasons why it bought SchoolSports and Student Sports and created ESPN Rise last summer.
“The digital space is where we are concentrating our efforts,” said James Brown, ESPN Rise senior vice president. “That’s where the mass of kids reside.”
After nearly a year under the ESPN banner, Brown decided that ESPN Rise’s Web site needed to be retooled to accommodate more video and be more interactive. Brown said ESPN still was developing the specific details of what the site would look like, but hinted that he wanted to make it easier for users to upload videos. And he wants to make sure that mobile applications play a big part on its new broadband site.
“We want to make sure that whatever we do on the Web can be supported with mobile,” he said.
Brown pointed to ESPN Rise’s support of its Elite 11 quarterback competition as an example of how he wants the revamped site to operate. The competition occurred in July, but ESPN Rise is using content from the event to develop five webisodes and video game challenges to promote the competition on the site. The finale will be telecast on ESPNU.
The Champion Gridiron Kings launched in July at the ESPN Rise Games at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, featuring a seven-on-seven competition with high school players. ESPNU carried a one-hour show on the event, but the competition had no broadband video. However, ESPN Rise plans to make it available next year as part of its plans to stream more video on its revamped site.
“We’re delivering the 12- to 17-year-old audience,” Brown said. “We’re an entry point to deliver more of ESPN and capture the audience early.”
Broadband applications aren’t limited to just streaming live games. Perlman said he’s seen a lot of activity in the recruiting, training and social-networking areas.
“A hot area right now is in the recruiting space,” he said. “It’s tied into the altogether macro trends of cheap video production, easy distribution, ability to do quality searches.”