SBJ/July 2-8, 2012/In Depth

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  • Taking aim at the youth market

    No one can doubt the numbers behind the youth sports market. With millions of young people involved in sports, from tee ball to high school, the market is vast. But it’s also heavily fragmented, which poses a major challenge for companies trying to build scale. ESPN’s decision to abandon its high school division shows that no matter how deep the pockets, finding a formula to make youth sports into a national property can be a daunting task.

    Yet companies continue to enter the youth sports market, or continually revamp their business models, in search of the right formula. Many of them reside in the digital space, offering to assist youth leagues with everything from registration and scheduling, to streaming video of games. Many are still seeking their first profit.

    In the pages that follow, meet some of these companies and the people behind them. See what they’ve brought to the market, or how they have evolved with time, and why they think they will find a successful niche in youth sports.

    All American Games
    Korrio
    HighSchoolSports.net
    iScore Sports
    SportsSignup
    Youth Sports Network
    Sports Broadcasting Academy

    iHigh
    PlayOn! Sports

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  • All American Games

    Headquarters: Wharton, N.J.

    What they do: Own and operate all-star football games and camps spanning middle school to high school seniors. The flagship U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio features the top 90 high school football players in the nation. Backers include the U.S. Army, Eastbay, Oakley, Gatorade and Adidas. Revenue for the company overall ranges from $10 million to $12 million annually and company executives say it is profitable.

    What’s next: The company wants to expand its football camps domestically and overseas, and apply the same structure used for its football camps and all-star games for other team sports.

    A look at the résumés assembled by players who have gone through the games and camps organized by All American Games tells the story of a company with considerable clout.

    Since the company started in 2000 with the first U.S. Army All-American Bowl, pitting the nation’s best high school players in an East-West matchup, 400 alums have gone on to play college football, 200 became NFL draft picks and seven won Super Bowl rings. This year, Andrew Luck became the first alum selected as the No. 1 overall draft pick.

    Other than that, the company hasn’t achieved much. Unless, of course, you consider a long-running broadcast contract with NBC of significance. Or an expanding sponsorship with Adidas that will make the company the head-to-toe supplier (minus shoulder pads and helmets) for football players in the all-star game, 40 spinoff instructional camps for elite players, and related properties for middle-school standouts.

    Photo by: COURTESY OF ALL AMERICAN GAMES
    Chairman Doug Berman and President Rich McGuinness first met in 1989 when Berman was campaign manager for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim Florio. After Florio won the election, Berman became his treasurer and McGuinness, who had recently graduated from college, joined the administration as Berman’s driver and assistant.

    They went their separate ways but reunited in 2000 with the creation of SportsLink, the company’s name until it switched to All American Games two years ago. The privately held company created the all-star high school football game in the vein of the McDonald’s All-American basketball game.

    “If you could bring together all of the top-flight athletes in their senior year, that would be an event interesting to people who follow sports,” Berman said, recalling the inspiration for the game. “And it has the opportunity to connect those companies that are interested in reaching high school and youth athletes as a vehicle.”

    Over the years, the football all-star game morphed into a weeklong series of events. The Alamodome hosts the game, with attendance of 40,000 fans. Band and cheerleader contests, a youth combine and other tie-ins bring thousands of coaches, players and parents to Texas every January.

    Its national youth academy, Football University, stages intense weekend instructional camps across the country starting after the San Antonio all-star game and running up to the cusp of the new season in July. Former NFL coaches lead the sessions, emphasizing technique at 40 camps with attendance of 220 to 300 players each. Each player pays $589.

    Between the youth combines, the camps and the all-star game, All American Games enjoys years-long relationships with elite players. Sponsors embrace the formula, since connecting with elite athletes who tend to have influence with their peers offers an inviting target.

    “It’s the gold standard,” said Mark Daniels, director of football for Adidas. “We like to be able to get our product on the best kids in the country.”

    Erik Spanberg writes for Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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  • HighSchoolSports.net

    Headquarters: New York

    What they do: Operate a site fueled by Schedule Star, a tool used by 8,000 schools to track schedules, rosters and other information checked by coaches, players, parents and fans.

    What’s next:
    The site plans to fill in geographic holes — Texas looms largest — by forging alliances with outside media groups. It wants to win over a younger audience with more video clips and a makeover leading into the 2012 football season.

    About half of the 17,000 high schools across the country rely on HighSchoolSports.net to share schedules and other day-to-day details with players, coaches and fans.

    Gannett, owner of the site’s parent, USA Today Sports Media Group, combines that feature with prep news and scores from its 105 media outlets to give the site a hook to keep those athletes, coaches and parents around for extended visits.

    This month, a revamped version of the site will debut, with greater emphasis on getting more teens — the players and their classmates — interested. How to do that? Think local and think rankings.

    Gannett’s 82 newspapers and 23 TV stations provide the entry point for the local coverage, with those hometown websites serving as portals to HighSchoolSports.net whenever a user clicks on high school sports.

    Tom Beusse, president of USA Today Sports Media Group, notes the current traffic patterns on the site tilt toward parents and coaches (80 percent).

    “It’s sort of garage logic,” Beusse said. “My kids will not go to a site I think is cool. But I’ll go to a site they think is cool if it serves my utilitarian needs.”

    Beusse calls Gannett’s media portfolio “an unfair advantage” the company can use to become a leading player in high school sports media. In recent months, HighSchoolSports.net nabbed Gatorade as a sponsor and started a campaign to add staff to ramp up video clips on the site. Noted digital firms The Wonderfactory and Perfect Sense helped overhaul the site.

    USA Today long ago created national rankings for high school teams in key sports, including football and basketball. More recently, Ken Massey, a ratings guru known for his college football analysis, created an algorithm to rank high schools on the Gannett site.

    That ESPN disclosed plans to shut down its high school site later this year bolsters Gannett’s confidence. The worldwide leader’s struggles in the prep world illustrate the difficulty of trying to make high school sports a national story. Players, coaches and parents tend to care most about their school and local and regional rivals.

    “I think the departure by ESPN from high school is a confirmation of what we’ve been saying all along,” Beusse said, “which is that in order to serve the high school market well, you have to be local because high school is inherently local.”

    Advertisers and sponsors contribute a large portion of HighSchoolSports.net’s revenue, but the site aims for more e-commerce on items ranging from uniforms to merchandise.

    Still, prep sports aren’t for the faint of heart. With thousands of high school football games on fall weekends, Beusse said many companies find the volume overwhelming.

    “[Other people say], ‘Holy cow, that’s unwieldy, we can’t get our arms around that.’ But when you’re Gannett and you’re comparatively the largest local media company in the country, 7,000 games on a Friday night excites us. It doesn’t scare us.”

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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  • iHigh

    Headquarters: Lexington, Ky.

    What they do: Youth and high school sports broadcasts online and across digital mobile platforms, including Android, iPad and iPhone. Free Web-based software provided to schools and other groups helps them create unique channels airing games and other events. Those same local producers use iHigh software to insert commercials and company logos for sponsored broadcast segments, among other features.

    What’s next: iHigh is making a strong push into national ad sales. In addition, an $11.7 million investment from Cox Media Group will help the company grow.

    Jim Host spent decades mining college sports for business opportunities, becoming an industry leader along the way. Now he’s applying the same formula to youth and high school sports with a high-tech digital strategy.

    The 74-year-old serial entrepreneur sold Host Communications in 2002. Several years earlier, he took the remnants of the company’s development of the first NCAA Final Four website and launched iHigh. Host alums Tim Campbell and Rick Ford — now the president and CEO, respectively — led the startup. It focused on high school sports marketing, but three years ago made a digital media push.

    Technology finally caught up with the vision, allowing iHigh to realize its goal of becoming a digital online TV platform for live games, custom clips and photos. The company now operates in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, Canada and other countries. Twenty percent of its 11 million unique visitors access games and other features on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), according to iHigh user data.

    In November 2010, Host returned to the venture as CEO of iHigh.com. All of the technology and development emanates from the company’s Kentucky headquarters. Ubiquitous computers and streaming, combined with iHigh’s custom software, makes game broadcasts as easy as plopping a laptop on a courtside table.

    Others see the value of so-called hyperlocal advertising on a national scale. In May, Cox Media Group invested $11.7 million in iHigh and took what both companies described as a strong minority interest.

    Powerhouse schools have started using the site to sell custom ads to raise money, a proposition strengthened by the companion game broadcasts. Best of all for the schools, the production costs them little to nothing.

    In Cincinnati, Moeller High School has used the site to generate $75,000 in local revenue in nine months. Hoover (Ala.) High School, in the Birmingham suburbs, raises $100,000 annually through advertising and an agreement with a local cable operator using iHigh.

    Spinoff uses abound. This spring, 200 high schools used iHigh software to show graduation ceremonies online. Archived videos allow for repeat viewing and, of course, more site visits to prime advertisers. Glee clubs, marching bands, churches and others have also come aboard. Overall, iHigh has done 56,000 live-video events in the past year.

    Everything is free for the schools, which provide their own computers and usually already have cameras on campus. The privately held iHigh and participating schools share revenue from ads and sponsorships. IHigh is worth $60 million, based on the Cox investment, the company said. It expects to become profitable in June 2013.

    Host sees plenty of cause for optimism, save one nagging problem. “I can’t sleep fast enough,” he said.

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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  • iScore Sports

    Headquarters: Los Alamitos, Calif.

    What they do: Sell custom mobile apps for real-time scoring and tracking of baseball, softball, basketball and football games. Apps sell for $9.99 each. Compatible with iPhones and iPads as well as Android phones and tablets.

    Beyond youth sports: For MLB fans, an add-on package with daily lineups and roster updates for all big-league teams can be purchased.

    What’s next: Touch-screen scoring apps are just getting started, said iScore co-founder Brett Law. As technology advances, so will iScore’s products. “The statistics are a fantastic way for coaches to help players develop,” Law said. “It’s an exciting time.”

    Cumulative statistics, pitch-by-pitch accounts, real-time game trackers and batting spray
    charts long ago became de rigueur for big-league games. Now the same detail can be assembled on a smartphone, tablet or laptop with fill-in-the-blank ease for youth leagues, too.

    Say hello to Faster Than Monkeys, the California company behind the iScore line of apps for scoring baseball, softball, basketball and football games. A pair of software developers, Brett Law and John Busfield, founded the company in 2009. The first product launched, a baseball app, proved to be a hit at Apple’s iTunes store as an iPhone and iPad app.

    The founders have children involved in sports and originally created the software for their own personal use. “And it spread from there,” said Law, the company’s CEO.

    The apps cost $9.99 each and can be used for as many games as desired. Revenue totaled $700,000 last year and will grow to $1 million in 2012, the company said.

    The app relieves coaches and parents of the tedium of manually scoring games and then having to submit the statistics and other information to league offices, community news services and the rest of the team. Everything in the iScore system can be instantly emailed.

    Privately held Faster Than Monkeys has three employees and uses subcontractors, too. Running lean allowed the company to become profitable “from day one,” Law said.

    Beyond the basic app, the company sells online team websites on a yearly subscription basis for $19.99 and has partnerships with companies that pay licensing fees to provide more in-depth statistical analysis. The latter service allows player comparisons and other measurements, typically used by high school and travel teams.

    The company sees ample room for growth.

    “The amount of data we’re collecting, it’s incredible,” Law said.

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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  • Korrio

    Headquarters: Seattle

    What they do: Coaches, players and parents in youth soccer leagues use a one-stop dashboard to keep up with practice and game schedules, game sites, registration and social media aspects, including photo and message posts.

    Recent moves: Signed Massachusetts-based Global Premier Soccer to use the system for its leagues, clinics, camps and tournaments across eight states. Former U.S. women’s soccer player Kristine Lilly signed on as a company spokeswoman and will also
    use the online system at her youth soccer academy. D.C. United agreed to use the platform for all of its academy and camp programs.

    What’s next: Later this year, Korrio plans to move into other youth sports, including football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse and hockey. Another future target: adult recreational sports leagues. Expect a Korrio mobile app early next year.

    An abrupt departure as CEO of a Seattle data-storage company in 2007 left Steve Goldman pondering his options. His career had always concentrated on technology, but as the father of two sports-minded children, Goldman chose to shift gears.

    “I decided to take a little time off and explore how to marry my passion of building tech companies with what I really care about,” he said, “which is kids and sports.”

    As a result, in 2009, Goldman launched Korrio, an online, cloud-based youth soccer league system. Leagues pay a fee of $8 per player per year, no matter the size, to connect players, coaches and parents to an online dashboard that includes constant updates of game and practice schedules, driving directions to game and tournament sites, and other details. Registration payments, scheduling, creating teams and social media elements such as sharing photos and messages are also part of the system.

    Players, families and coaches pay no fee for the service. Korrio’s revenue depends on signing leagues to pay for the registration system, which then provides entry to the broader service at no additional cost. The leagues sign up for one, two or three years, similar to a wireless phone contract.

    Eliminating email trails and simplifying the administration of leagues led to the launch of Korrio. The privately held company has raised $5.8 million from investors, Goldman said. He said the company anticipates becoming profitable within two to three years.

    Privately held Korrio includes some heavy hitters in its lineup. Martin Coles, a former executive at Starbucks, Reebok and Nike, and former Microsoft CFO John Connors are investors in the venture.

    Goldman points to rapid growth in youth sports — statistics he cites show participation quadrupling in the past 20 years — as the foundation for his company’s growth.

    “The average American family is spending a bigger and bigger slice of their free time having something to do with youth sports,” Goldman said. “We wanted to do something that would be impactful to this audience.”

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.


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  • PlayOn! Sports

    Headquarters: Atlanta

    What they do: PlayOn is the nation’s largest sports media company for high schools in the U.S., broadcasting about 14,000 events in 2011-12. The company acquires broadcast rights from state athletic associations and individual schools and produces live Web broadcasts for regular-season and postseason events. PlayOn sells advertisements against its broadcasts and also licenses its feeds to local regional sports networks.

    Recent moves: The company has broadcast agreements with 23 of the nation’s 65 high school athletic associations.

    What’s next: The company hopes to increase licensing partnerships with regional sports networks for live TV broadcasts of high school sports.

    David Rudolph laid the groundwork for PlayOn! Sports as an executive at Turner Broadcasting, and for 12 years he oversaw Turner’s push to produce online college and high school sports broadcasts for minimal cost. In late 2007, he left Turner and organized a holding company, 2080 Media, which bought PlayOn’s assets from Turner a year later. He then set out to become the major player in high school sports broadcasting.

    “Nobody in the marketplace had consolidated a position, so from a rights standpoint it looked like a good market,” Rudolph said. “We were blown away by the size of the audiences for the events we did.”

    Rudolph said the tipping point came in early 2009 when his group produced a webcast of a Georgia state wrestling championship. He anticipated viewership to be between 10,000 and 20,000. More than 100,000 people tuned in.

    “The event didn’t even have any marketing or promotion,” Rudolph said. “It was an eye opener of what [high school sports] were capable of doing.”

    The company employs 65 full-time staff and more than 1,000 freelance producers. They use a technology partnership with Limelight and a proprietary player application to beam live sports across the Internet.

    The company has rights agreements with 23 of the country’s 65 high school sports associations, which allows it to broadcast postseason and championship games. PlayOn also has individual deals with about 300 high schools to show regular-season games. The company broadcasts 15,000 games.

    “Right now we’re as big as everybody else combined, but it’s likely less than 1 percent of the total market,” Rudolph said.

    The company also has licensing agreements with Comcast and Fox to broadcast games on local RSNs, and Rudolph hopes to expand that end of the business. He said 60 percent of PlayOn’s revenue comes from advertising, 30 percent from licensing fees and 10 percent from DVD sales and other revenue. He said he hopes to boost licensing revenue 50 percent. Rudolph said that the company is not yet profitable, though it is “very close.”

    Fred Dreier is a writer based in New York.

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  • SportsSignup

    Headquarters: Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

    What they do: Provide online registration services and fee payment processing for teams, leagues and tournaments, as well as background checks for coaches and volunteers.

    Recent moves: Opened a regional office in Phoenix to serve California and the Western United States.

    What’s next: More partnerships with firms to create premium services such as anti-concussion training and computerized testing for player performance.

    Photo by: SPORTSSIGNUP
    The origin story for sports registration company SportsSignup.com is similar to those of other companies featured on our list. The Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based company, however, took several years to get out of the gate.

    In 2002, Matt Scarchilli and John Haller digitized the registration process for their local youth soccer league, then started a company around the service the following year. By 2008, when Anthony Bruno took over as CEO, SportsSignup.com was still running operations out of local coffee shops in upstate New York.

    Bruno, then a 15-year veteran in Silicon Valley’s tech startup scene, doubled the company’s fees to bring them into the market’s middle/high end. Simultaneously, the company signed a deal with data aggregation company ChoicePoint (now LexisNexis) in 2007 to provide background checks. The checks are now required for all coaches and volunteers in New York state and, according to Bruno, are one of the company’s best-selling services. The increased revenue and new service helped the company expand its business, primarily through word of mouth.

    “Someone would register their child to play baseball, and that same someone would happen to be the registrar for the local lacrosse league,” Bruno said. “There is certainly a network effect that takes place, and this tends to be regional.”

    Currently, SportsSignup.com works with about 2,000 leagues and tournaments, and processes more than 1 million individual transactions annually. The primary service is to run the basics of sports registration: process fees, pick teams, create schedules, etc. Bruno said revenue has grown 30 percent to 35 percent annually since 2007.

    It also offers premium services for leagues, such as data capture to monitor concussions and other injuries, and to track a player’s performance progression.

    “Anybody who has experienced the old way of registration immediately sees there is value in what we do,” Bruno said. “If you can see it, you’re likely to become a customer.”

    Fred Dreier is a writer based in New York.

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  • Youth Sports Network / Sports Broadcasting Academy

    Headquarters: Orlando

    What they do: Television and radio broadcast training for high-school-age students

    Recent moves: Founded in November 2011; graduated first class in January

    What’s next: Partnering with more youth sports tournaments and television stations to provide a platform for graduates to practice their skills. Ambitions to start a regional or national youth sports television network.

    A longtime college coach and academic administrator, Jamie (pronounced “hi-may”) Rivera sunk his retirement savings into starting the Youth Sports Network’s Sports Broadcasting Academy this past November.

    Rivera, whose previous job was as an
    admissions administrator for Southern Connecticut State University, said he developed the idea for a program for high-school-age sportscasters after watching ESPN one night.

    “There are a lot of youth sports being played in the country, but those in front of the camera are always adults,” Rivera said. “Why isn’t there an ESPN-type show for kids?”

    The YSN concept is to provide online courses for high-school-age students for both radio and television sports broadcasting. The faculty includes Matt Pinto, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s radio play-by-play announcer; former ESPN radio host Jon Chelesnik; and Root Sports broadcaster Rich Burk, among others.

    The faculty teaches a 13-week course, which includes a two-hour weekly lecture in front of a webcam. The course addresses a range of topics, from writing broadcast copy and delivering “memorable speeches,” to the proper way to hold a microphone.

    The goal is to attract students with an affinity for sports and to let them sample sports broadcasting and determine whether they want to pursue a career in the field.

    The academy caps each classroom at 10 students a term, and the cost of tuition is $1,495.

    Fred Dreier is a writer based in New York.

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  • Book delves into the excess of kids’ sports

    Equipment. Skills training. Tournaments. Camps. Road trips. For anyone whose child has played youth sports, those are the elements that can quickly send costs soaring. Is it simply too much?

    In his new book, “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families” (Beacon Press), former SportsBusiness Journal writer Mark Hyman looks at the stresses, “financial and otherwise,” that youth sports can put on children and families. Hyman writes: “How is this great sloshing of dollars distorting the experience that we want for children as they leap off the starting block or dribble down the lane?”

    Here are some excerpts:

    The Parent Trap: “The sports life of adolescents should not be a four-figure annual investment. Yet when faced with a choice to spend or not to, we seldom choose the latter. The result can reflect a glaring weakness in judgment.”

    Baby Goes Pro: “The fear of waiting too long nudges us to search out soccer leagues with nursery-school divisions for 3 year olds. Yet there must be an age that we can agree is just too young. There must be.”

    Youth Sports, USA: “Turning kids’ sports into a summer-long road trip distorts and diminishes youth sports, changing them in ways that we rarely talk about. The more miles we travel, the more money we spend, the more time we invest crisscrossing the country, the more we expect from the experience and from our kids. It isn’t enough just to have fun. The unspoken, and often unintended, message from parents to kids can be that they have to deliver to make that summer of sacrifice worthwhile.”

    Selling Hope: “The problem is simple: there are far more kids hoping to play college sports than roster spots for them. The math is quite discouraging. … According to the (NCAA), fewer than seven high school players in a hundred move from prep to college teams. … The idea that sports will pay for college is also a myth for all but a few.”

    — Staff report

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  • High School Athlete Participation

    High School Athlete Participation
    Most Popular Boys Programs

    RANKED BY NUMBER OF SCHOOLS SPONSORING THE SPORT RANKED BY TOTAL U.S. PARTICIPANTS
    1. Basketball (18,150 schools) 1. Football (1,108,441 participants)
    2. Track and field (15,954) 2. Track and field (579,302)
    3. Baseball (15,863) 3. Basketball (545,844)
    4. Football (14,279) 4. Baseball (471,025)
    5. Cross country (14,097) 5. Soccer (398,351)
    6. Golf (13,681) 6. Wrestling (273,732)
    7. Soccer (11,503) 7. Cross country (246,948)
    8. Wrestling (10,407) 8. Tennis (161,367)
    9. Tennis (9,839) 9. Golf (156,866)
    10. Swimming/diving (6,899) 10. Swimming/diving (133,900)


    Most Popular Girls Programs

    RANKED BY NUMBER OF SCHOOLS SPONSORING THE SPORT RANKED BY TOTAL U.S. PARTICIPANTS
    1. Basketball (17,767 schools) 1. Track and field (475,265 participants)
    2. Track and field (16,030) 2. Basketball (438,933)
    3. Volleyball (15,479) 3. Volleyball (409,332)
    4. Fast-pitch softball (15,338) 4. Fast-pitch softball (373,535)
    5. Cross country (13,839) 5. Soccer (361,556)
    6. Soccer (11,047) 6. Cross country (204,653)
    7. Tennis (10,181) 7. Tennis (182,074)
    8. Golf (9,609) 8. Swimming/diving (160,881)
    9. Swimming/diving (7,164) 9. Competitive spirit squads (96,718)
    10. Competitive spirit squads (4,266) 10. Lacrosse (74,927)


    Notes: Track and field listed is outdoor. Football is traditional 11-player tackle.
    Source: National Federation of State High School Associations’ 2010-11 Athletics Participation Summary

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