Gannett in Big Push for Online High School Sports

High school sports have been the centerpiece of many hyperlocal efforts. They bring to the table highly passionate fans, families and players in the hard-to-reach 12-17 year-old demo.

But the economics of school-by-school efforts don’t always work, whether for branding; region-wide advertisers and advertising sales; production needs; data and content acquisition; or site infrastructure. Just getting the scores on a timely basis has been a major chore, much less coverage rights. Various athletic councils tightly control play-off rights. Consequently, it truly makes sense for sites to be developed on a regional and/or national basis. But to date, nothing has been especially effective.

Gannett is making a fresh go at it, however, with Highschoolsports.net, adding to its roster of other vertical developments (moms, shopping etc.) A startup version of the site was acquired in 2007 from entrepreneurs who tried to leverage their customer base for Schedule Star, a software program first created in 1964 that manages athlete data for 7,000 schools.

The site hasn’t developed much in the three years it has been owned by Gannett – it is currently only in 13 markets in Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee. Each of the markets contains multiple schools. Indianapolis, for instance, includes nine schools.

Now, the site is under new management and things are expected to change quickly. The company has now announced that it is ready to launch 38 markets by the end of August, and 100 by the end of the year, which it expects will bring it 9.4 million unique monthly visitors. The initial flurry of rollouts includes major markets such as Washington D.C., Atlanta and Denver.

Gannett’s local TV, newspaper and Web properties are attached to each rollout. There is also a tie-in with Gannett’s USA Today for national content and cross-promotion.

While the sites are geared towards national and local advertisers, there is also an e-commerce play via MyLocker.net, which provides school, team and league-specific clothes for 110,000 custom online shops. Gannett owns a minority share in the company, which promises to give a portion of sales back to their school-partners – up to 17 percent when the schools themselves initiate the sales.

The larger question is whether Gannet intends to try to go truly national with highschoolsport.net by teaming up with other media companies that also have their eye on high school sports. Tribune and Belo, for instance, have also been developing high school sports sites in several markets: Tribune, with several sites under different brands that have been retooled from My Varsity Sports, and Belo, with High School Game Time.

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