Not Your Parents’ Network: PlayOn! Sports Partners With NFHS To Give High School Sports a Home

“The NFHS Network is a network for the next 40 years and not a network for the last 40 years.”

With that, PlayOn! Sports CEO David Rudolph set the tone as he spoke before the National Federation of State High School (NFHS) Association’s annual convention in Denver  in June, presenting to the audience the plan for what will become the NFHS Network.

NFHSNetworkMany have tried to corner the market in national high school sports television, and the highway is littered with the smoldering remains of those who have failed. Rudolph feels his company’s revolutionary approach can find success by designing a future-looking digital network with availability on all screens and broad coverage of all high school sports with a layer of hyperlocal flair.

“This is not our parents’ network, nor is it even a network for those of us in the room today,” he said, addressing the NFHS Convention crowd. “Instead, this is a network for today’s students and those who will come after them.”

Now with high schools across the country already opening their doors for a new year, the vision is about to become a reality. Via PlayOn! Sports’ already established and successful digital platform, the NFHS Network is forecasting a staggering 50,000 productions for the 2013-14 academic year, an insane number that somehow leaves Rudolph wanting more.

“It is a big number, but, at the same time, we measure that against what we think the total opportunity is, which is about 2 million events a year,” he tells SVG. “So, while 50,000 by itself is a big number, it’s about 2½% of the market. There’s still a lot of room for growth.”

So just how will PlayOn! get all of these events done? To start, PlayOn! and its staff of 30 full-time employees will coordinate productions across the country, working with a pool of more than 4,000 freelancers. PlayOn! currently owns and operates more than 60 HD production units (most of the size of a sprinter van), a total that Rudolph says will grow in the coming months. Full PlayOn! productions will include many state playoffs and championships.

VIDEO: The National Federation of State High School Associations and PlayOn! Sports announce the creation of the NFHS Network at the NFHS annual convention.

VIDEO: The National Federation of State High School Associations and PlayOn! Sports announce the creation of the NFHS Network at the NFHS annual convention.

“We don’t want to come in and disrupt the flow of the event,” says Rudolph, who purchased PlayOn! Sports from his former employer, Turner Broadcasting Systems, in 2008. “We don’t want to be that production crew that comes in and dictates the start time and takes over the press box. We want to come in and just fit in with what’s going on and make the best use of what space is available.”

The rest of the programming schedule will be filled out by the schools, which will produce their own content. Selected regular-season games and early-round playoffs can be produced by students at institutions that have established video-production programs and received some training from PlayOn! Sports staff.

The educational opportunity for students looking to get into broadcasting was just the cherry on top of what NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner perceives to be a sweet deal for his members.

“It gives us an opportunity to really showcase the best of high school sports and to enable us to grow participation,” he says. “One of the real values is the experience young people have in participating in these kinds of activities. We think that our partnership here with PlayOn! enables us to really feature that and to tell the great stories from all across the country in literally every state.”

Each of the 51 NFHS state association members has the opportunity to join the NFHS Network to showcase its high schools, student athletes, and tournaments. While states will continue to maintain local media relationships, the NFHS Network will become the largest aggregated destination for coverage of high school sports in the country.

“This is a network for the 99%, not the 1%. One way our network will be unique is by providing coverage of the athletes for which this will be their last time participating in organized sports.” – David Rudolph, CEO, PlayOn! Sports.

Rudolph makes it clear that this is a network of inclusion, not another platform for top football recruits to get another turn in the spotlight.

“This is a network for the 99%, not the 1%,” he says. “The star athletes and elite teams will always receive plenty of coverage, regardless of what we do. One way our network will be unique is by providing coverage of the athletes for which this will be their last time participating in organized sports.”

Last week, Gardner said it was premature to say whether schools or state organizations were making any production-gear purchases in anticipation of the network launch but added that state organizations have the opportunity to take this and run with it, given a national platform to tell the stories of their student-athletes and schools.

“We have never really had a national platform to do that,” he said. “This gives us that opportunity, and, through telling that great story, it’ll build support, which is critical for high school sports as we go forward in this country. That will encourage more young people to take part.”

Rudolph confirms that, as part of its branding effort, PlayOn! Sports plans to roll out a consistent graphics package across the NFHS Network, while leaving room for states to customize their graphics packages to reflect their target audiences. Those designs are currently being built in anticipation of the network’s launch.

“When a consumer turns on an ESPN broadcast, whether it’s 2 or U or even ESPN3, there’s a consistent look and feel,” he says. “We want to develop that same consumer expectation with our product.”

Over the next couple of weeks, PlayOn! will roll out mobile applications for the NFHS Network. Rudolph says distribution is key to the success of the network, and he wants NFHS Network apps available everywhere, from phones to tablets. The company is also targeting over-the-top (OTT) devices.

“Our goal in this first year is to have this content on every available screen,” he says. “I was very excited and interested to hear about [Google] Chromecast, which I think is going to be another great product that continues to make this kind of product available on the television screen.”

Financially, Atlanta-based 2080 Media, which operates as PlayOn! Sports, announced completion of a Series D round of financing last month, totaling $26 million and led by Indianapolis-based Herff Jones and including existing investors Buckhead Investment Partners, Hamilton Ventures, and Imlay Investments. The company plans to use the funding to support new growth initiatives, including the NFHS Network.