Navigating a startup through the volatile and unpredictable media landscape is no small feat. But that’s exactly what David Rudolph has done at the helm of ATDC-graduate PlayOn! Sports, a sports media company for the high school market.
The rise of streaming and subscription-based programming over the last few years has helped the thirteen-year-old company scale in recent years — it now streams one in four high school games nationwide. Following a new strategic investment from KKR, Rudolph spoke to Hypepotamus about the experience of building up the sports media startup and what is next for the team.
The concept was born inside Turner Broadcasting, where Rudolph worked after graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in industrial engineering. He was frustrated that he couldn’t catch a Georgia Tech vs. UNC football game on TV and set out to address a clear gap in the sports market. “There are passionate fans, but sometimes there just isn’t enough to make the [traditional] television model make sense,” Rudolph told Hypepotamus.
PlayOn! has built out a robust platform to produce and distribute untelevised sporting events. After spinning out of Turner as an independent venture in 2008, PlayOn! pivoted to the high school market, a strategic move as television and digital rights intertwined with the rise of streaming.
Rudolph graduated from ATDC in 2011, which he credits for helping “shorten the personal learning curve” associated with moving from the corporate world to startup land.
In 2013, PlayOn! Sports and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) created the NFHS Network. Along the way, the team has navigated the fragmented high school market, aggregated media rights, and built relationships with schools across the country.
“We’ve never changed our focus, which is that we want to stream every single [high school] sports event,” added Rudolph.
While growing the startup, the very nature of how we consume media has changed. Streaming and online consumer subscription services are now the norms, thanks to the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube TV. And those changes in consumer behavior have helped PlayOn! bridge the gap between high school athletes and fans.
Rudolph said that the platform will stream around a million events this year, up from 350,000 the year before. The goal, Rudolph added, is to get to the four million mark (the total number of high school games played annually nationwide). “That’s what drives us. And as we grow, that brings in more fans and more audience to the mix.”
The team, largely Atlanta-based, has grown as well. The team is currently 125 full-time employees and around the same number of part-time employees on payroll working on the event production side of the business.
BEHIND THE DEAL
PlayOn! announced at the start of February that global investment firm KKR plans to make a “significant investment” in the company.
Current stakeholder, Atlanta-based Panoramic Ventures, will also join in on the new investment.
For Rudolph, the investment is the next big “play” for the company.
“It felt like we hit the proverbial ‘next level’ in revenue, profitability, and scale, and I had some investors who had been very patient for a long time. So it seemed like the right time for us to go to the market and see if there was the right partner for us for the next stage of the company’s growth.”
Previous Atlanta-based investors include BIP Capital, Imlay Investments, and Hamilton Ventures.
Rudolph said PlayOn!’s senior team is staying through the transaction.
PlayOn! works closely with the NFHS (the high school equivalent of the NCAA), state sports associations, coaches, administrators, student-athletes, and fans. “We work with pretty much everyone in the high school ecosystem from the top to the bottom,” Rudolph added, saying that he is regularly pitched or asked to solve other problems within the high school sports ecosystem. He added that KKR’s “resources and reach is going to help us think about those [problems] pursue those more than we could of as an independent company,” added Rudolph.
“This first phase was hard. There were a lot of things to overcome because high school is such a fragmented market,” added Rudolph. “The next five years should have just as much growth but not quite so much pain. At least that’s the plan.”