‘Stepping Over Dead Bodies’: Has the NFHS Network Figured Out Live High School Sports Production?

Sports is local. Sports is tribal. Sports is the original social network.

Schools partnering with the NFHS Network receive a laptop with PlayOn! Sports' built-in proprietary streaming software.

Schools partnering with the NFHS Network receive a laptop with PlayOn! Sports’ built-in proprietary streaming software.

If these common assessments of the sports business are true, then why, with well over 31,000 public high schools in the U.S., has live high school sports-video production been such a hard monetization egg to crack? Many media companies have tried — even one named ESPN — but the business model just hasn’t been there.

PlayOn! Sports and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) think they have the secret figured out with the NFHS Network, which is in its second year of operation. Deploying a robust arsenal of regional staffs and well-trained in-school production teams, coupled with the growing adoption of over-the-top (OTT) and mobile video-distribution and -consumption platforms, the NFHS Network is on pace to produce approximately 40,000 live events nationwide this academic year.

“We’re changing an industry,” says Andrew Saltzman, chief revenue officer, PlayOn! Sports . “Pro sports is saturated. College sports is saturated. This truly is the final frontier, and, as [CEO] David Rudolph will tell you, we’re stepping over dead bodies: a lot of companies have tried this and failed. We think we’ve figured out the model. It’s hard work, but it’s certainly rewarding.”

School-Led Shows
From both a production and a sales perspective, PlayOn! Sports attacks the market via a two-pronged approach: national and regional.

On the production side, the ultimate challenge is the sheer scale of events that, individually, don’t draw big ratings but, when grouped together, offer an attractive subscription package for viewers. How does one keep production costs down while offering a product that will encourage users to pony up for a subscription package that could range from $9.95 for a day to $119.95 for a year?

PlayOn! Sports' software includes a built-in graphics package for uniform branding.

PlayOn! Sports’ software includes a built-in graphics package for uniform branding.

First, PlayOn! Sports rests heavily on its member schools to help produce events. Of the approximately 40,000 events that will air this year, staff and students from the high school itself will produce more than 25,000.

Led by Chief Content Officer Sandy Malcom, a former executive producer at CNN.com, PlayOn! Sports has established various production tiers that depend on the size and scope of the event and the location and logistics of the site. When PlayOn! produces the events, the tiers range from a simple one-camera shoot through an Econoline van with two to four cameras for, say, cross country and football to Sprinter vans with production switchers and a full complement of cameras, replay, etc., for major events, such as football playoffs.

Schools whose state associations are under the umbrella of the NFHS Network have the option to engage with PlayOn! and begin their own production groups. When a school signs on, PlayOn! supplies the school with a laptop computer that has the NFHS Network’s proprietary streaming software built in. That software also includes the network’s customized graphics package.

“It’s very important to us that our relationships with the schools start with the state associations,” says Malcom. “They help us work with the schools. There are a lot of properties out there that want to come in and produce full games, but we want to take the right approach. We want to work with the umbrella organization — starting with the NFHS — who are our partners in the NFHS Network.”

PlayOn! is also making continued effort to offer production training for staff and students at member schools. Next summer, the NFHS Network will host the inaugural NFHS Network Broadcasting Academy in Atlanta. It is designed for student broadcasters to hear and learn from successful sports broadcasters from major networks and develop skills through hands-on broadcast-training sessions. The event will also include an inaugural awards ceremony where schools will be honored for their work.

Some schools have already elevated their performance to such a level that they have become ‘Certified Contractor Schools,” which PlayOn! will turn to to produce big games that may not even feature the schools’ own athletic teams.

“It’s a win-win for us,” says Malcom, adding that Certified Contractor Schools also receive financial compensation for their work. “The program is really starting to take off. The schools love it, and they see it as ‘Hey, we’ve arrived, and we’re producing for the network.’ It expands the scale. We want to produce as many playoff games as we can, and, as much as we are in a lot of places, we can’t be everywhere. We feel that this is really the best way to bring about scale.”

Making a Digital Impression
Some of the NFHS Network’s success can be credited to timing. Never has production equipment been cheaper and more user-friendly, and mobile distribution/consumption is flying through the roof.

Students have become major content creators. More than half of events aired on NFHS Network are produced by students.

Students have become major content creators. More than half of events aired on NFHS Network are produced by students.

According to Saltzman, the network is seeing about a 50/50 split between mobile and laptop consumption, with mobile use on phones and tablets continuing to climb. He also notes that the success of PlayOn! Sports’ sales and advertising model is selling the market of high school sports and the communities that support them, not just the number of viewers an event may draw to the network.

“We’re not selling digital video impressions,” says Saltzman. “We’re selling an opportunity for brands to really connect. If you are following high school sports, traditionally, you have a connection with someone on the field. What advertisers and brands want is the ability to help with the delivery mechanism. When you hear parents say they work two jobs and have the opportunity to watch [their] child’s game, there’s a deep appreciation there.”

The NFHS Network sells its sponsorships on a national and a regional level. Under Armour is the network’s first major national sponsor and receives activation across all events, including exclusive partnerships with NFHS schools and branding on new feature and on-demand programming that the network is beginning to develop. Regionally, PlayOn! Sports Properties works on identifying key partners for specific markets. Blue Cross Blue Shield, Subway Restaurants, and Regents Bank are just a few examples of national brands that want to make local impressions.

“It’s really about finding the right partners,” says Saltzman. “There is something very altruistic about what we’re doing. Dollars that we’re producing here are going right back into the schools. That’s important because high school sports have been threatened and $3.5 billion has been cut out of programs over the past five years alone. We’re able to support and give dollars back to the NFHS on a national level, to state associations, and to the schools themselves.”

Given the educational element, there are certain clients — cigarettes, alcohol, politicians — that are off-limits for the NFHS.

Spreading the Love
Under PlayOn!’s model, sports like football and basketball, which typically overshadow other sports, are not necessarily king. With the NFHS Network subscription model, the schools get a 50% portion of subscription sales, and it wouldn’t be prudent for a school to produce five football games and call it a year. There’s little to no chance of making money without spreading into all the various sports families within a community.

“Sure, football playoffs give us a spike, but it’s amazing how well some of these other sports do in these communities,” says Malcom. “Cheerleading is huge; wrestling in the winter. Lacrosse, soccer, and swimming are very regional sports; they do very well and, in some cases, better than football. It’s our mission that we do all sports, and we see that interest across the board.”

PlayOn! Sports’ viewership options offer exciting opportunities for fans, including a video-clipping feature that allows subscribers to go in and clip highlights of their child’s action for easy sharing on social-media platforms.

It’s options like this that interest sponsors who are looking for new and engaging ways to brand themselves beyond prerolls, banners, and on-screen graphics.

“It’s much deeper than that,” says Saltzman. “How do we use our platform to have a brand really connect with those communities. It’s the development of original content. We have all of this content that we have been curating, and we have some great packaging that we’re pushing out.”