SBJ/July 2-8, 2012/In Depth

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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