Through Merger With WWWYP, PlayON Sports Finds Success in High School

One year ago, high school was not a vertical market on which PlayON Sports dedicated much energy. Today, however, PlayON’s business is taking off within that vertical, thanks to a merger with When We Were Young Productions, the most successful producer of high school sports you’ve never heard of.

“In the last year, we’ve really focused our energies on the high school space, and it’s been fairly explosive growth,” says David Rudolph, president/CEO of PlayON Sports. “We currently work in seven states, producing for television and streaming high school sports.”

The Company Behind the Curtain
That work comes in concert with When We Were Young Productions (WWWYP), a nine-year-old production company that annually produces thousands of high school sporting events. Its brand is not paramount on those productions because the events are produced for each high school’s state sports association, and WWWYP President Tim Eichorst has spent the past decade building relationships with those associations.

“I felt there was a growing interest in these high school events, and no one else was focusing on them,” he explains. “I work with quite a few regional sports networks and cable operators for distribution on the product that I produce.”

WWWYP produces events ranging from basketball to swimming on behalf of high school associations nationwide, and regional sports networks (RSNs) and cable operators pay WWWYP to distribute that content. In each state in which the company does business, he sets up a full-time staff and builds production trucks capable of producing everything from a simple Internet stream to a live broadcast on an RSN.

“I have 11 full-time staff members, and then a cadre of part-time people that fill in when the busy season hits around tournaments,” he says. “Key to our model is that we can choose how we want to produce the game but also sell very high-level productions. When we go out and negotiate with vendors who would like to be a carrier of our product, we always have the capability to deliver through an RSN, cable operator, or direct to the consumer through the association Website.”

A Need To Stream
Rather than solicit production relationships with individual high schools, Eichorst works directly with the associations, which are comparable to college conferences. WWWYP acquires the rights from those associations, negotiates distribution and monetization of the content, and pumps it out live, tape-delayed, or for video-on demand.

“My pilot association was with Wisconsin, and, as time went on, I have evolved my model,” Eichorst says. “I have developed a fairly robust broadband strategy for the content, specifically around high school association-branded Websites.”

Rather than plaster the WWWYP logo across his productions, he felt that the content would have more resonance if it was branded with the relevant high school association. To that end, he built broadband portals for each of his partner associations and, a year ago, began searching for a new backend service provider for the streaming and broadband delivery.

“PlayON had just recently separated from Turner at that time, and I knew they had focused on being a service provider across high school, college, and professional,” Eichorst says. “Our epiphany together was that, if we pool our energy, resources, technology, and relationships and really attack the high school space, we could be a really strong entity. That’s what led us to the decision to merge.”

Self-Service Streaming
The merged entity — which is still without a name — will take advantage of PlayON’s proprietary technology platform, which includes video-production capabilities and a multiplatform distribution system.

“Within the last six months, we have launched another component to our business, our school program,” Rudolph says. “We extend the technology platform out to individual schools and give them the ability to self-produce their own regular-season and early-post-season games, the games that we’re not covering. That’s a growing part of our business.”

Instead of supplying each school with a full production flypack, as PlayON did with its ACC Select service in the college market, PlayON provides high schools with only a laptop and some training.

“The overwhelming majority of schools that we’ve discussed this with have the equipment that they need,” Rudolph explains. “The reason that we include the laptop is, a lot of school computers have firewalls that can take us days to figure out how to make a stream work out of. We include the laptop just so we know the school has a dedicated streaming laptop that is configured, but we know that the schools have everything they need to produce the events themselves.”

Varying Qualities, High Quantity
Training on the PlayON system is done mostly over the phone, although a relationship manager in each state is always available and typically is on-site for the first event at each new school. The productions coming out of the schools range from single camera and no audio to five cameras with a sideline reporter and two people in the booth.

“The majority of school productions are completely student-run,” Rudolph points out. “Typically, there is a media teacher who provides supervision and guidance, but 99.9% of all the productions are student-based.”

Together, the two companies managed more than 2,500 productions of high school events in 2009, but Rudolph expects the school-produced events to quickly eclipse the number of events produced by PlayON and WWWYP on an annual basis.

PlayOn and WWWYP currently partner with seven state high school athletic associations: Wisconsin (WIAA), Michigan (MHSAA), Georgia (GHSA), South Carolina (SCHSL), Missouri (MSHSAA), Illinois (IHSA), and Oregon (OSAA), with several additional partnerships in the works. The two companies have distribution relationships with Comcast, Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, Fox Sports Wisconsin, Fox Sports Midwest, and Fox Sports Detroit, and expect those to increase as the details of the merged company are hammered out.

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