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Taking High-School Sports National

For what is among the most local of all athletics, PlayOn! Sports is going national with an online high-school sports network.

PlayOn! Sports, which has been streaming 30,000 events annually from high schools in 26 states, via its digital portal, while also producing and distributing television coverage of select championship events, is collaborating with the National Federation of State High School Associations on NFHS Network.

The subscription-based service will be available at NFHSnetwork.com, and through mobile phones and Internet-connected devices. It’s a joint venture of NFHS, its 51 member associations and PlayOn!, which will own 52% and 48% of NFHS Network LLC, respectively.

PlayOn! Sports CEO and former Turner South executive David Rudolph said his group, which has been burnishing its position in the high-school sports arena since 2008, will be responsible for day-to-day operations of the new service, which is expected to launch in time for the upcoming 2013-14 academic year. The parties, Rudolph said, first met about the concept last Thanksgiving, with the network introduced last month at NFHS’s annual meeting in Denver.

With an incentive to share in the joint venture’s fiscal fortunes, each of the NFHS’s 51 members will encourage its schools and tournaments to make action available to the NFHS Network. NFHSnetwork.com, which will supplant the current playonsports.com portal, will likely present 50,000 events in its freshman year, Rudolph said. All told, there are 2.1 million annual high-school sporting events, all of which Rudolph believes could be made accessible on the service a decade down the road.

Calling NFHS Network “an ambitious exercise,” Rudolph said: “This is the time to start. The technology and distribution mechanisms continue to improve. And now everybody has a TV screen in their pocket 24 hours a day.”

By aggregating high-school content, NFHS Network believes it will appeal to schools, student-athletes, families, fans, alumni and advertisers with a lineup that includes football, basketball, baseball, competitive cheerleading, cross country, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball, water polo, weightlifting and wrestling.

“With 19,000 high schools in the United States and nearly 2 million events held annually across the country, we are very excited about this enormous opportunity,” Bob Gardner, executive director of the NFHS, said. “Once launched, the network will help the federation showcase its primary mission of expanding participation and opportunities for involvement in education-based interscholastic sports and performing arts activities. We are excited to provide viewership opportunities for fans of high school athletics all over the country.”

Based in Atlanta, PlayOn! Sports has a staff of 65 employees and a network of freelancers. The organization, which has its own set of trucks that produce games in high-definition and relies on rental production units that enable locals to shoot other contests, will be adding more personnel with the launch of NFHS Network, Rudolph said.

NFHS subscribers can choose from live or archived events. Content will also include analysis and highlights.

Rudolph said the joint venture would likely tinker with a number of subscription- price models based on length of time — a day, week or a month — as well as on a seasonal or annual basis. Tournament pricing could also be in play. “We’re going to be looking at different opportunities,” he said.

While Rudolph anticipates that NFHS Network will sell some programming to various networks — as PlayOn! Sports has been doing — a 24/7 linear channel is not part of the initial game plan. He said full-fl edged linear opportunities would be guided by whether such a service “could make an impact, provide marketing benefits for the JV, or if sponsors expressed interest in moving to such a format.”

There had been some high-level sponsor briefings with a half-dozen companies before the venture was announced, Rudolph noted, adding that efforts to bring marketers into the fold will now intensify.

Rudolph said the JV is looking to sponsor partners that “will bring assets to the table” to help NFHS Network raise the awareness for the service, which will also rely on media schedules to trumpet its arrival on the national sports scene.

TAKEAWAY

PlayOn! Sports and the National Federation of State High School Associations are plotting a national subscription Web-video service focused on local high-school sports events.