Why high school sports viewing skyrocketed on NFHS streaming network in pandemic

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

The subscription-based platform, owned by PlayOn! Sports, gets students involved in production.

COVID-19 marked a mass exodus from classrooms to remote learning, but education wasn’t the only big change in student life. 

Sports were also canceled, resulting in empty fields, gyms and weight rooms where high school athletes once trained and competed. Gradually, these sporting events returned, but COVID-19 limited fan capacity in the stands. 

The NFHS Network, a subsidiary of PlayOn! Sports, offered an alternative for fans to catch the action from home. The subscription streaming platform allows people to watch live high school games including basketball, football, wrestling, volleyball, soccer, cheerleading, dance, ice hockey and baseball on a computer or smartphone or save them for on demand viewing. Non-sports performances, such as graduation ceremonies and concerts, are also available. 

This past year, more than 5,700 schools broadcasted games on the network, which more than tripled its sports producing venues. Thanks to the pandemic, the network surpassed a total viewership of 18,000,000 people during the 2020-2021 school year, growing 225% year over year. Overall, the network streamed more than 320,000 games. 

The NFHS Network is run by its state association schools, according to David Rudolph, CEO of PlayOn! Sports. Most schools film with a Pixellot camera, which uses artificial intelligence to autonomously follow motion on the field. An algorithm is written for each sport, which determines how to track the action. For instance, the platform identifies 10 players on the court for a basketball game and keeps them in the frame.

Some events are also produced manually, with students controlling production elements like running the camera and graphics. The network takes child safety measures seriously by not capturing or distributing students’ PII (Personal Identifiable Information).

Fans can purchase a subscription for $10.99 per month or $69.99 per year. 

“The core audience are people who have a direct relationship with someone who's on that field,” Rudolph said. “The second group are the people who don't have a relationship with anyone on that field, but they have a relationship with one of the participating schools, like an alum. The ‘I'm just a sports fan, and I want to tune in and watch a great game’ group are not a material amount [of subscribers].”

The NFHS Network tailored its marketing strategy around that core audience by using a homegrown marketing automation platform that helps it determine which games to boost with paid marketing, Rudolph said.

“We look at an individual game and say, ‘Is this one we're going to spend paid marketing on? Or is this one we're going to do more organic [marketing]?’ It scales very nicely and independently of how many live games we're trying to market.”

The NFHS Network includes advertising and also allows schools to run their own ads within their broadcasts.

Last year, the Network launched its High School Support Program, which gave more than $200 million for its school partners to receive two free Pixellot cameras. NFHS also donated more than $8 million in revenue back to its high school partners through the program and other initiatives. 

The network aims to stream one million games in the next year, according to Rudolph, who is doubtful that the delta variant will cancel entire seasons. Still, the network is keeping an eye on potential attendance restrictions in the future. 

“Our goal is to showcase every event across every sport at every level,” Rudolph said. “We also want to be able to preserve games for these students who, somewhere down the road,  can show their kids or friends. Until we hit that, we still have work to do.”

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