Media co. PlayOn! Sports growing footprint, capabilities with latest funding CEO discusses platform's ability to reach hyperlocal teen, parent demo

September 12, 2011

While sporting giants like ESPN and rising stars such as Bleacher Report seemingly have sports covered, one area left in their wake is the almost completely untapped distribution and dissemination of high school sports.

Enter PlayOn! Sports, an Atlanta-based media firm that touts itself as the largest producer and distributor of high school sports content over television and Internet. The company just received $7.2 million in a Series C round of funding, which it's using to expand its geographic footprint and capabilities into areas like mobile.

The round was led by Buckhead Investment Partners, and includes existing investors Hamilton Ventures and Imlay Investments.

Chief Executive Officer David Rudolph helped launch PlayOn while he was an executive at Turner Broadcasting System, but the division was later shut down because it underperformed financially, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Rudolph told the publication that PlayOn was "a small thing in a big company," but knowing its potential, 2080 Media, which does business as PlayOn, used proceeds from its Series A funding in Dec. 2008 to acquire the assets of PlayOn From Turner.

With additional Series B funding support in August 2010, the company continued growing, combining State Athletic Associations' postseason content with member schools regular season content to broadcast 5,000 annual events across 12 states.

Now, the company produces and distributes coverage of more than 30 different high school sports, adding up to more than 10,000 total events yearly, including 2,000 plus high school championships.

PlayOn also has distribution partnerships with several major national companies, including ESPN, Fox, Comcast, Charter and Time Warner Cable.

With this new $7.2 million, PlayOn! Sports plans to expand its business further nationwide and continue attracting new regional and nationwide advertisers, Rudolph told DailyVista.

The high school audience has always been attractive for advertisers because its demographics include highly touted teen and parent segments, but until this point, the market has been extremely fragmented, he stated.

"The challenge, especially for a national advertiser, is that there was no aggregate way to reach them," he continued. "No advertiser wanted to sponsor 50 different states and thousands of different high schools. Many marketers are interested in having an aggregated place, and that's what we're building. We're certainly not at that point today, but we're headed in that direction. We're already bringing some aggregation and critical mass to regional and national sponsors and advertisers."

Currently, PlayOn! centers its efforts in the football-centric Southeast and Midwest, but it began pushing west in the last year, bringing schools in Colorado and Oregon on board. Rudolph said the company will issue announcements this fall pertaining to additional expansion, but covering 100 percent of the United States is still a ways off.

"We're pushing towards that, and after this fall, we will have a broader focus than just the Southeast and Midwest," he said.

While football gets the most attention in these regions, high school sports is much more than just pads and pigskin. Even in Atlanta, our source has found that baseball is rising in popularity, and basketball continues to excel in the Midwest.,

"The interesting thing about the Midwest is that it has broad support for all high school sports," Rudolph acknowledged. "You can go to the Wisconsin Basketball Tournament and in the middle of the afternoon at the Kohl Center there will be 17,000 people in the building. Wrestling is huge in the Midwest, as well."

Lacrosse is also gaining popularity outside of the Northeast and Mid-Altantic regions. In fact, our source said lacrosse is the fastest growing high school sport nationwide.

"If you look at all of the coverage that we've added, it's probably the biggest sport that we've seen growth in in the last two years," he said. "Most states have added it as an official sport or in the process of adding it."

With a high school in almost every town overseeing a multitude of sports, high school athletics are the largest sports market in the country. Our source said 40 percent of all Americans, consider themselves high school sports fans, which is three times larger than the number of college and professional sports fans combined.

"But with so many high schools and so many games, it goes back to the fragmentation challenge that we discussed before," Rudolph continued. "High school touches everyone, but that's where we come in."

PlayOn! can tailor packages for advertisers to reach individual high schools, zip codes, regional and national audiences.

"It touches on teens, but we're also reporting strong numbers among 55 plus and within the 18-to-49-year old demographic," our source expressed. "We reach a very localized audience, which isn't too dissimilar from what college was 20 to 30 years ago. There are more distribution opportunities for these sports to get exposure and more schools means more stories. We're starting to get more national recognition."

Currently, PlayOn! spends most of its time with national advertisers, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Country Financial, Farmers, Meijer and Sports Authority, that want to operate at the statewide or more regional levels.

"Sometimes they want to focus on a certain geographically or even one school," Rudolph stated. "We offer a lot of flexibility. National brands can building advertising and marketing campaigns that stretch border-to-border, but they sometimes need help reaching out at the regional, state and hyper local levels. Whether they're a national or regional brand, they want a way to get a consistent message out, and they want to customize it for a local dealer or a local franchise. If they can say, ‘these are our new tires, and here's the store closest to you,' that becomes very interesting for marketers."

PlayOn! is attracting advertisers and brands across several categories, but insurance companies, banking, automotive and telecom have been its biggest supporters so far. Our source said this makes perfect sense because these are categories where both kids and parents are making brand and financial decisions.

"In high school every kid turns 16, so a lot of them are getting a car for the first time and they need insurance," Rudolph said. "Some are setting up a bank account for the first time. It's very attractive for local, regional and national advertisers who want to influence these brand decisions that could resonate for the rest of their lives."

In addition to geographic expansion, PlayOn is using the new funding to expand its offerings to mobile.

"Mobile is a huge opportunity for us," our source added. "It gives us an instant access point to an audience at any point. That transition is a bit of a challenge for us because we're a very video-centric asset, so we want to make sure our large video network will work effectively across mobile. It's not a significant hurdle though, so we'll be making some announcements about it soon."

PlayOn also plans to expand beyond games and events into areas like commentary, for example.

"At the core, once you have games, the other programming is easy," Rudolph said. "We want to focus on teams and events for now. Historically, high school coverage has only focused on top teams, top players and top matchups, but we say high school should be about 99 percent of the kids, not just the 1 percent. Sure, we feature top kids and top teams, but we want to get out there and explore the breadth of the total events that are available."

Rudolph said he's just beginning to receive calls from agencies curious about PlayOn's offerings and reach, and this is an area that the company will focus on growing significantly.

"They know the value of this space, and they're looking for some things that could help differentiate their clients and set them apart," he continued. "Right now, their calls are more about general consulting. They're asking what they need to know about this space and how we can help their current and future clients."

Our source said that brands and agencies interested in leveraging PlayOn's platform should e-mail him directly.

Full article available at Daily Vista

Media contact:

LeAnn Boucher

Trilucent Group