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Volume 21 No. 2
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Execs team up for youth sports network

A high-powered group of sports and media executives and entrepreneurs this fall will start a new kids sports TV and digital network called The Whistle, seeking to reach a youth audience that the founders believe is underserved in traditional media channels.

Primarily targeting children ages 6-16, The Whistle was formed by longtime entrepreneur John West, founder of environmental engineering outfit Enstrat and management solutions firm Silver Oak Solutions; Jeff Urban, former senior vice president of sports marketing for Gatorade; and Kit Laybourne, former executive producer for Nickelodeon, MTV and Oxygen. West will be the chairman of the venture, Urban the chief marketing officer, and Laybourne the chief creative officer.

The Whistle, based in New York, hopes to launch in October after more than a year of development. It will comprise a traditional linear TV network, a video-heavy website powered by NeuLion, and a battery of mobile applications.

But the marketplace for launching any new network is filled with obstacles. The Whistle has yet to sign any TV distribution deals, however West said they are in advanced discussions with several cable and satellite operators. Facing an uphill fight for distribution as an independent entity, the network hopes to have a presence on digital networks operated in conjunction with video game consoles.

The founding trio has attracted a star-studded array of investors, including Gatorade endorsers Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning and Mia Hamm; former MLB President and COO Bob DuPuy; and Bob Pittman, Clear Channel chairman of media and entertainment platforms, among others.

West declined to disclose financials based around The Whistle’s launch, but said he has raised millions for the venture, almost none of it from institutional entities. He also declined to outline what he is seeking to charge potential TV distributors per subscriber, though advertising sales will be more of an initial focus. The Whistle’s founders are not seeking carriage on dedicated sports tiers and instead aim for placement on broader cable tiers.

“The premise is pretty simple: Why is there no comprehensive sports offering out there for kids?” West said. “There is a huge market of U.S. kids playing organized sports, more than 50 million, and we see a significant opportunity there.”

Programming will include instructional shows, behind-the-scenes elements with pro athletes, sports-oriented game and cartoon shows, and user-submitted video. The Whistle will not seek any live game rights from pro leagues, but is seeking to develop programming in cooperation with properties.

“In my view, the biggest challenge for every sports entity is staying relevant to the next generation, and there hasn’t really been anybody out there trying to be the Nickelodeon of sports,” said DuPuy, now a partner with Foley & Lardner and a senior adviser to Creative Artists Agency’s investment banking affiliate, Evolution Media Capital. West has been a Foley & Lardner client, providing his initial introduction to DuPuy.

“So I think they’ve got a terrific concept, and I think this can help open up a whole new battery of sponsorship opportunities around sports,” DuPuy said.

Even with The Whistle’s industry connections and financial resources, however, starting a new, independent cable channel is an increasingly difficult proposition. Startup networks are now often owned and operated by large, established media corporations that already dominate channel lineups. But industry analysts said The Whistle could still find an audience, provided it keeps programming costs down.

“This sounds like an interesting concept and a reasonable niche to target,” said Lindsay Gardner, senior adviser to Oaktree Capital Management and a longtime cable industry executive. “Sports programming, however, can be very expensive to acquire and develop. If they keep control on that and temper some of their initial expectations [with regard to distribution], there could be an opportunity.”