For years the debate has raged on as to whether or not high school sports can become a viable property for marketers in sports. In addition to the bright lights of football in states like Texas, California, Florida and Pennsylvania and the inner-city allure of boys and girls basketball, thousands of young student-athletes participate in organized sport across the country. From band to cheerleading, cross-country to fencing, high school athletics has helped bring balance, discipline and spirit to schools big and small for almost a century.
Yet for all it success, tighter budgets have cut athletic programs along with the arts in schools across the country, leaving a void with unfulfilled dreams and time for many students. Some districts have sought to self-fund programs, looking to sponsors and other ways to raise monies needed for uniforms, equipment and field maintenance, while others have fallen by the wayside without the means to get dollars for budgets. In search of a wider audience, schools have looked to see if there are alternative resources, from media rights to guarantees, to help balance the budget and keep kids engaged. Some places have succeeded, while others still search for answers.
Along those same lines, broadcast programmers looking for lively content, both hyper-local and national, have started to look harder at high school sports. A host of sites like Rivals.com have emerged to help fill the void of information and access to the growing high school market, while broadcasters like ESPN do match-making and cherry pick from a menu of elite games to show year-round on their host of networks. The elite content has flourished, while in other places, New York for example, which had Cablevision-backed MSG Varsity as a channel, the effort for constant, mega-local broadcast programming has failed to find an audience.
But outside of the broadcast space, there is still a need for content that can be self-generated at an affordable, even profitable rate. High schools have more and more students engaged in digital media, and many times there is a disconnect between those kids who play and those who could potentially write about and broadcast sports of all sizes to an audience as small as parents groups or as large as booster and alumni clubs from around the country.
Looking to fill that void, publishers have emerged looking to find a best in class format that high schools can use, one that is affordable, adaptable and most importantly can serve as both a learning tool and potentially a profit center for schools big and small. One of those providers is BigTeams, a Virginia-based company working with a list of several hundred high schools and growing. BigTeams provides a template and other tools for schools to take control of their information publishing, from original content to scheduling, and empowers each school to grow its own footprint that best serves its community. In an era where college sports is becoming out priced for many brands and companies are looking for more of a hyper-local engagement with a core audience, BigTeams has found a niche.
Is it a niche that is growing? The BigTeams investors believe so, with Arlington, Va., based Capital Sports Ventures announcing a large raise this week, and appointing Clay Walker as the company’s CEO. Walker is a digital industry veteran, having been vice president of publisher relations at USA TODAY Sports after co-founding Big Lead Sports, a successful digital sports marketing and media company start up that was acquired by USA TODAY in January 2012. He was also senior vice president of the NFL Players Association’s licensing and marketing division for 13 years, where he was named to the SportsBusiness Journal’s Forty Under 40 list.
We asked Walker about the high school marketplace, what the future looks like, and how BigTeams will get bigger.
Sports Media Report: How big is the high school market now, and what emerging business in the digital space could you compare it to in terms of potential from other businesses you have been involved with?
Clay Walker: There are approximately 25,000 high schools in the U.S., with more than 7.7 million student-athletes. More than 500 million people attended high school athletic contests in 2013 so the audience is enormous. It’s just in thousands and thousands of small segments. What we’re trying to do is to make it easier for high school athletics administrators to manage their athletics programs, and also make sense of the space for brand marketers.
In some ways, it’s similar to the fantasy sports industry 20 years ago. Millions of people participated, but the market wasn’t organized. When the NFLPA got involved, we were looking to grow the industry and organize it by bringing on key partners like CBS, Yahoo, ESPN, FOX, and others.
SMR: Will you partner with or be able to draw content from sites like Rivals, PlayOn Sports etc. or would that be up to the individual school?
DW: Rivals is really unmatched in the college recruiting business and PlayOn Sports has created the best, most comprehensive network of high school video in the U.S. BigTeams has no aspirations to tackle either of those areas so both companies are natural partners for BigTeams. Quite frankly, we should all want each other to be successful.
SMR: Are there schools or districts you can say already are great examples of a BigTeams partnership and what sets them apart?
DW: Currently, the best example of a BigTeams partnership with a school or district is the state of Virginia, where we have more than 200 high school clients using our software. Though BigTeams's DNA is as a software company, the business has never approached brands. However, because the school sites reside on the same platform, it’s easy to see how BigTeams would be attractive to brand marketers.
SMR: What type of brands could benefit from such a large scale endeavor with high school sports?
CW: BigTeams is ideal for brands that want to reach an active, passionate and engaged audience. Brands such as ARMY, National Guard, Under Armour, Nike, Asics, Adidas, other fitness products and insurance companies are obvious fits for the platform.
SMR: Where will the funding be used that you just received?
CW: Three main focuses—programming/product enhancements, additional development staff and additional CRM staff. We need to go tell our story and bring on new clients, but when we bring them on board, we have to make certain we have a world class customer support and retention program in place. One of the things that attracted me to BigTeams was the fact that they had a great reputation for being client-focused. As we scale the business, we have to make sure that continues to be one of the pillars of the business.
SMR: Where do you see BigTeams being in a year in terms of size and why?
CW: Though I hate to make predictions, we’re hoping to double the number of high school clients by this time next year. The business has been around for eight years and has grown organically, but very slowly. The plan is to accelerate the growth of school development without losing focus on the product being the most comprehensive software solution for high school athletics departments.