Tuesday, August 05, 2008

WePlay Gets $8.6 Million in New Funding:
Yes, But Will It Play In Pee-Wee Leagues?

WePlay is an interesting business: The "operating system of youth sports" is its positioning, with renewed interest in the wake of yesterday's news they raised another $8.6M in B-round funding.

There's a Yardbarker-type element to it: Its big p.r. draw is the inclusion of pro athletes. In YB's case, it's the athlete blogs being the consumer draw (ahead of its member blogs or, the backbone of the entire venture, its ad network roll-up of smaller sports blogs).

In WePlay's case, it is the A-list cachet of the B-round investors: LeBron. Jeter. Peyton.

The site is geared to pre-high school sports. It isn't a social network, but there are social network aspects to it: Hyper-localized mini-networks. It has a robust enough market potential, but I remain skeptical that hyperlocal content needs a universal aggregator. As with any platform, it's all in the utility of the tools. If they work, it could be a winner. But there are no network effects with local youth sports -- the T-ball team in Malibu doesn't need to be on the same system as the hoops league in Tampa. However, what they commonly need is an online system to organize themselves.

The well-funded WePlay can afford to build the best system -- one that would out-do any locally based system. (Yet another area where local newspapers totally blew an opportunity.)

The exit strategy seems simple enough: Become the youth-sports solution to a major sports media company's youth-sports need. The travel down the continuum is only getting younger.

Ideas like ESPNU and the CBS College Sports Network have begat the makings of "ESPN HS" -- signaled by ESPN's acquisition of Rise, in addition to its larger focus on the obsessive market for high school recruiting news and information.

The next frontier is getting even younger: Think "ESPN Kids." The twist is that rather than covering youth sports as news -- like recruiting -- this is about facilitating participation. Any media company in the business of selling sports has a vested interest in facilitating -- and generating -- enthusiasm for sports among kids.

(One of the most trenchant pieces of analysis in Tom Farrey's must-read book "Game On" was the concept that kids who play become kids who are fans, not the other way around; kids who don't play don't become fans -- a concept that better have pro sports leagues thinking hard about the future.)

And so I could see the ultimate exit of WePlay being a beachhead for ESPN -- or any of its competitors -- in the must-have youth-sports market. That it plays -- at least theoretically -- in the hot "social media" space only makes it more appealing. (WePlay has raised $13 million; who knows what its valuation is at this point -- but it'll be pricey.)

Given the high-profile athlete backers, buzz for WePlay is there. Will the kids follow?

-- D.S.

No comments: