PlayOn! Sports Aims To Put High School Sports on the National Stage

Earlier this month, PlayOn! Sports, a high school sports media company, produced a live stream of the Colorado Class 5A Swimming & Diving Championships. Other than family and friends, that sounds like a tough sell to television viewers.

However, 16-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin was the star. She should be: she’s the top-ranked swimmer in the country and a world-record holder in two events. When she makes the U.S. Olympic team, as expected, she could very well be the sweetheart of the London Games.

Suddenly sounds more interesting, doesn’t it? ESPN3 picked up the feed, and the event received substantial traffic throughout the weekend.

The Internet is providing a home for high school sports, a largely untapped resource.

PlayOn! Sports already produces more than 5,000 events and generates more than 15,000 hours of live and on-demand event content in 21 states.

PlayOn! Sports announced last week that it will launch the first nationwide network dedicated exclusively to high school sports, including a 24-hour linear television channel and products for broadband, mobile, and video-on-demand platforms.

It’s stories like Missy Franklin’s that make PlayOn confident that high school sports can prosper in the current media climate.

“You have those types of great stories, great programs, and great games that happen every day,” says PlayOn Sports CEO David Rudolph. “This national platform is going to give us an outlet to start initially showing the games but ultimately to give us a platform to start telling these stories.”

Set to debut in the fall, the linear network will feature a robust lineup of live event coverage as well as highlight shows and feature programming. Rudolph knows it’s a substantial task to undertake, but, with approximately 30 “sprinter-van” HD mobile units already scattered across the country, he is confident in his operation.

“I think that the biggest change [when the linear network launches] will be doing a lot more postproduction in terms of utilizing the content to create derivative products,” says Rudolph, who was SVP, strategy and new products, at Turner Sports before purchasing PlayOn! Sports from Turner in 2008. “So the biggest investments are going to come after the events are over in how we log those in real time, how we create highlights, how we put highlight packages together, and how we make that content quickly available on multiple platforms. The volume of content we are working with, it’s going to be a pretty difficult task to tackle.”

He says it is “highly likely” that the studios for the linear network will be in Atlanta — PlayOn’s current home base — and adds that he is “almost 99% certain” that the company will pursue a third-party solution for master-control uplink and downlink.

This is far from the first attempt at a high school network. The idea has had rather limited success, and, with the exception of MSG Varsity, high school sports has been a tough sell for cable distributors.

PlayOn could, however, be uniquely positioned to win with a nationwide high school network, given its exclusive and extensive rights holdings, partnerships with state high school associations, and relationships with hundreds of high schools that participate in its School Broadcast Program.

Currently, PlayOn annually produces more than 5,000 events, broadcasts 1,000 championships, and generates more than 15,000 hours of live and on-demand event coverage from 21 states. In addition, schools participating in the School Broadcast Program — a student-centered education outreach — annually produce more than 15,000 regular-season sports and school-related events, such as news programs, meetings, and graduations.

Standing relationships with various cable providers could aid in distribution as well.

“We are extremely aware of the reluctance of distributors to add new linear product,” says Rudolph, who played a major role in launching Turner South. “What’s been unique in this case is that a lot of distributors are already our clients. We already work with Comcast and Time Warner Cable in multiple markets, so, to them, we are a known commodity, and they know the quality of product that we produce.

“They know we are not just another company coming in here trying to cram another network down their throat,” he adds. “What we want to do is to talk about high school holistically and why we think a linear, broadband, and VOD product is a great, valuable solution. These guys all know that local content, especially local sports content, is big for them.”

Although the linear network will get much of the attention leading up to the launch later this year, it’s the digital platform that has Rudolph most excited.

“True quality live streaming of video over the Internet is in its infancy,” he says. “You can do it now and it works, but, over the next five to 10 years as this next platform emerges, it’s going to be great for high school sports. What hasn’t happened to date is, there just hasn’t been a distribution platform that’s matched up well for high school. The production costs and distribution costs attached to television just didn’t justify the cost of it on a large scale. Now anybody can distribute content pretty cheaply on the Internet, and it has not only local but national and international reach.”

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