To say the business of high school sports marketing has evolved during Jack Roberts' tenure would be an understatement. Roberts, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, just completed his 28th year in that position. He fondly remembers when he started, a time before fax machines and a time when lengthy face-to-face meetings were all part of doing business.
"I liked sitting down with the president of a pizza company and sharing our stories about school sports and having a deal by the end of lunch," says Roberts. "Now, those deep and meaningful relationships have been replaced by instant and brief communications where performance is measured in visits and clicks."
Since the unofficial dawn of the digital age approximately 15 years ago, sponsors have enjoyed a platform through which results can be quantified and sponsors can more effectively measure their return on investment. Consequently, high school athletic associations have been forced to adapt how they market and sell their properties.
Chuck Schmidt, associate executive director and chief operating officer for the Arizona Interscholastic Association, likewise recognizes that the high school sports marketing model is evolving at a rapid pace, and since 2002 has been investigating the appropriate emerging channels and platforms to help drive revenue growth beyond the traditional advertising-sponsorship model.
"We have been working really hard to promote and develop a properties model, but we were having a really difficult time putting that together and we were staffed very lean," says Schmidt, a former teacher, coach and administrator on the high school and collegiate levels.
Searching for a way to make AIA a central hub for all high school content, Schmidt began working with Atlanta-based PlayOn! Sports, a media production company specializing in high school digital channels. It was during a meeting with PlayOn! Sports that Schmidt connected with David Johnston of Charlottesville, Va.-based Rockbridge Sports Group, who was acting as a consultant for PlayOn! Sports, and Schmidt's vision for the future of high school sports marketing became clearer.
"We immediately connected from the standpoint of understanding what we see as the model in promoting the marketing strategies for high school sports," Schmidt says. "Having someone who understands the high school model, someone who had the experience to help us create, develop, promote, market and sell a property, that really helped us get to the next level."
A big part of that model involved property rights management, a topic both Johnston and business partner Rich Klein were very familiar with from their days with CBS Collegiate Properties, the multimedia collegiate rights branch of CBS.
THE RIGHTS STUFF
Both Johnston and Klein had worked extensively on property rights at the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia, respectively. It was that experience that empowered the business partners to expand beyond the collegiate landscape to high schools.
"It's an incredibly complex business with a lot of vendors out there," says Johnston. "Putting all of those pieces together to build something that's consistent with your brand, that you control, is why I think our foray into the high school level was a logical extension, because we come from a college background and understand the educational component."
This played a role in Roberts starting a relationship with Rockbridge. When evaluating third parties to help with the corporate sales arm of MHSAA's marketing body, Roberts quickly noted that these third parties either had the sponsor's best interests in mind over those of the association, or they wanted to "gobble up all of the rights of the association."
"If we had given our rights away, we could not have been able to say 'no' as easily to lucrative packages that would've connected us to inappropriate products," Roberts adds. "We don't have the glitz and glamour like college or professional sports, so we better have the purity and wholesomeness."
That glitz and glamour can be a thorn in a high school association's side, as Schmidt has discovered in Arizona, where AIA competes with the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, as well as professional teams such as the Arizona Diamondbacks, for sponsorship money.
Rockbridge has helped both the Michigan and Arizona high school athletic associations stay competitive through multimedia rights management, a platform that focuses more on traditional sponsorship rights, such as sponsorships and endorsements, than licensing. This includes traditional revenue-generating tools, such as signage at events, event marketing, tickets and hospitality, to name a few, while the second piece to the multimedia rights puzzle is the media or content rights. In the past, these were classified by medium of distribution, such as television, radio or print rights. Not anymore.
"In this new age, it's still the same content, but you have to look at it in terms of their content right," says Johnston. "You have a video, audio and still image account of your game that high schools, associations and universities own. How are you going to manage all of that content, distribute it and get it monetized in the digital world? That's one key part of the broader sponsorship and property rights model, and that's where we come in."
This was exactly what Schmidt had observed on the collegiate level, and he had sought to implement a similar formula on the high school level but lacked that one component to assist in strategy and point AIA in the right direction: a dedicated network. "You see what's going on with the various colleges and conferences coming together and creating an online network or national network, and it's all about controlling the content, monetizing it and then engaging that down to the individual school level," says Schmidt. "That's what we are trying to do but in a different way."
While this model can be effective for large individual high schools with larger staff and budgets, Johnston views this as a natural fit on the association level. "I see the biggest growth or opportunity on the state level," he says. "If you bring those assets that you have within a state inside the wire and have a consistent voice and model from a sponsorship and revenue perspective, that's where the growth occurs. Your associations have the resources that most schools don't and can work with the schools to bring assets up and get them to participate in programming that benefits everybody."
FIELD OF STREAMS
The high school media management platform is built around the pinnacle of interscholastic sports: the state championship. To broadcast those events across the country, state associations use a variety of tools, including radio, which, according to Roberts, "is still very important to those small schools and communities." But many high school athletic associations have adopted video streaming. AIA365.com is the Arizona Interscholastic Association's media portal for all high school sports in the state, the go-to place for valuable content that Schmidt calls "a true sports properties model." While blogs and original articles are key components, Schmidt sees the most potential in video.
"Video streaming is one of the cornerstones of creating a property model," says Schmidt, who estimates Arizona streams approximately 220 events per year. "While it doesn't generate the majority of traffic, that landscape will develop and that's going to evolve, whether it's a subscription-based model or pay-per-view."
Michigan was an early adopter of video streaming, and its website is the most visited website of any state high school association, according to Roberts. But those numbers haven't necessarily translated into strong revenue.
"No matter how well we might be doing in comparison to all the other state high school associations, compared to the big boys, we're just a drop in the bucket," says Roberts, referring to his college and pro counterparts. "That's why we're having trouble monetizing our digital platforms. When we talk to a sponsor, not only must they look at a package in terms of digital plus signage plus other opportunities, but they must also have that emotional connection to the high school community."
Johnston understands the frustration of Roberts and other athletic administrators. "There is no simple answer in terms of how to effectively monetize video streaming," he says. "We believe in building a sponsorship model that helps you grow your audience and engage as many people as you possibly can. It's about getting more and more people to hear and watch a production and creating an ecosystem that allows you to redistribute that content."
Jack Roberts remembers the glory of days of high school sports. According to the Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director who's been in that position for 28 years, a strong argument could be made that high school sports peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"That's when high school sports had their highest profile in communities," Roberts says. The reason? "Television hadn't made college sports and professional sports high profile yet. Back then, high school was the biggest game in town and, in many cases, the only game in town."
But the drawback was that those high school sports were limited to a few boys-only sports like football and basketball. Today, Roberts is much happier with the state of high school sports and its promotion/availability to the high school community at large.
"While we may have peaked in terms of profile, we have exploded with our current depth of programming," he says. "We've gone from a time when high school sports was at its peak to a time where we are peaking in terms of inclusion."
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Athletic Business titled "Fight for Your Rights."