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Horizon League wins acclaim for its Web-based sports network

November 7, 2009

Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone never envisioned himself getting into the television business.

LeCrone

But that changed in 2004 when he saw a Butler University women’s basketball game being aired on a laptop computer.

The school had worked with a local video production company to air the game on its Web site, and immediately LeCrone wanted the entire conference in on the action.

“I took one look at that, and said, ‘What is that and how are you doing it?’” LeCrone said. “It wasn’t herky-jerky, it was real TV-quality, and I thought if we could do that kind of programming league-wide, we just might have something.”

LeCrone was looking for a better way to market his Indianapolis-based collegiate sports league, which includes Butler, Valparaiso University and eight other schools.

He figured he could take the $500,000 a year the Horizon League was paying a Chicago cable television company to show 15 men’s basketball games and apply it to creating an all-encompassing Web-based TV network.

In 2005, the Horizon League began streaming men’s and women’s basketball games live on the Internet. Thousands of viewers tuned in from across the country, LeCrone said.

That early success gave birth to The Horizon League Network at www.horizonleaguenetwork.tv, which was launched in October 2007.

“What they’ve done is pretty brilliant,” said Robert Unmacht, principal of iN3 Partners Inc., a Nashville, Tenn.-based media and technology consultancy. “This could be small and midsize conferences’ answer to The Big Ten Network.”

The Horizon League ramped up from airing 140 live sports Webcasts during the 2005-2006 school year—before the network was officially launched—to 450 this year covering all conference-sanctioned sports.

The Horizon League Network this year has added a daily news show, an opinion-oriented talk show called “Two Cents,” and a section highlighting plays and performances of the week. And now the network is making a push into social networking, giving students, parents and alumni a way to be more connected to their schools, the league and one another.

“Each school essentially has its own channel,” LeCrone said, “with live [Webcasts], on-demand archived video, student-athlete blogs and a lot of other interactive elements tailored to that school and its followers.”

The new content has driven a year-over-year 230-percent increase in video viewership. The initiative got so big, LeCrone said, Horizon officials hired Indianapolis-based WebStream Productions to manage it.

The network has been funded primarily by the Horizon League, though several member schools have added upgraded video equipment to their arsenals. It now costs the league about $400,000 annually to run the network.

“If you look at the cost per thousand, compared to the cost and number of people we were reaching before with our limited TV deal, this is a very solid value,” LeCrone said. “It’s proven to be a very good marketing and recruitment tool for our schools.”

David Morton, a Butler graduate and principal of Indianapolis sports marketing firm Sunrise Sports Group, said he’s not seen any conference-run Web site as comprehensive as The Horizon Network.

“When your wide-screen TV doubles as a computer, and I think that will happen within three years, this [network] will become that much more powerful,” Morton said. “I think that’s when the Horizon League will really get a payoff.”

Morton said the Horizon League offers the conference and its teams valuable exposure, but it certainly doesn’t offer the cash guarantees an operation like The Big Ten Network brings to universities like Indiana and Purdue.

Fox’s agreement with the Big Ten projects paying the conferences schools $2.8 billion over 25 years. That would translate into $10.2 million annually per school, which would equate to about 25 percent of Indiana University’s athletic department budget.

“Our intent is not a big payday for our schools,” LeCrone said. “It’s a way to reach out to our followers and attract new ones.”

WebStream Vice President Nate Flannery said that’s already happening.

“We’re getting more new users every day from a broader geographical footprint,” he said. “Not only are we gaining attention from people involved in the Horizon League, but we’re picking up fans from other conferences when we air non-conference games.”

It’s not that LeCrone doesn’t want the site to make money.

“At some point, it has to be financially viable,” LeCrone said. “I’m not sure it will be break-even in the near term, but every dollar we bring in brings down our cost in reaching people with our message.”

Already, Speedway gas stations have been incorporated as the network’s presenting sponsor. LeCrone couldn’t say how much Speedway pays to be a sponsor on the site because its deal is wrapped into a larger sponsorship package.

The Horizon League sponsorship provided a way for Speedway “to give back to the communities” where the company does business, but also was attractive because the league’s Midwest footprint closely mirrors that of the gas station company, said Speedway SuperAmerica LLC President Tony Kenney.

WebStream’s Flannery is confident that, as the technology progresses and becomes more ubiquitous in American society, sponsorship revenue will increase.

“The fun thing with this initiative is that anything is possible,” Flannery said. “We can tie in a title sponsor to any element. The sky is the limit when it comes to advertising and sponsorship.”

Since the network is as much a marketing tool as a revenue driver, all content is free. LeCrone doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

So popular is the network that Loyola University Chicago began airing its graduation ceremony on the site two years ago, said John Planek, the school’s athletic director.

“We hear from so many of the athletes’ parents and so many of the fans who simply can’t attend our events in person,” Planek said. “The outpouring in response to this network has far exceeded anything I would have hoped for.”•

 

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