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Digital media firms search for revenue in high-school bleachers

By Jessica Toonkel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Digital media companies looking for other sources of revenue growth are targeting high school sports licensing and content deals, hoping to tap into a surge in online viewing and crack a market too fragmented for most traditional networks.

Online viewing offers new ways to reach a rabid fan base of the about 2.5 million scholastic events held each year, according to PlayOn! Sports. Streaming games have a cost advantage over traditional television and produces a treasure trove of data that can be used to market to advertisers, executives said.

Digital platforms seeking to add or license high school sports content include Monumental Sports Network, a digital platform co-owned by Monumental Sports & Entertainment and NBC Sports, and Pluto TV, whose financial backers include German media giant ProSiebenSat.1, Scripps Networks Interactive and Sky Plc.

Time Warner Inc's's Bleacher Report, is searching for ways to identify student athletes and teams with stories that can attract a nationwide audience.

Bleacher Report, which is a unit of Time Warner's Turner unit, is partnering with Facebook Live and Snapchat on videos featuring heavily-recruited high school athletes "committing" to colleges or universities of their choice. See video: (https://tinyurl.com/zpuko9p)

With millions of events held each year and over 8 million high school athletes across the country, Atlanta-based PlayOn! Sports estimates a revenue opportunity of around $2 billion a year just through live-streaming games.

PlayOn! Sports, which charges $9.95 per month for viewers to watch high school sports, this fall will launch digital ticketing, Chief Executive Officer David Rudolph told Reuters. With digital ticketing, the firm will have access to data on these fans that can be used to woo advertisers and athletic brands.

"This is an audience that you know likes playing sports or is in the market for athletic equipment," said Vasu Kulkarni, founder and CEO of sports analysts software company Krossover. "You can't say that about the average NBA fan."

The challenges of gaining critical mass viewership, however, have led some companies, like Yahoo to steer clear of live-streaming high school games.

"It's such a hyper local endeavor that it is really difficult to build a business," said Kyle McDoniel, head of Yahoo's Rivals.com, which specializes in college sports recruiting.

To snag deals, firms usually have to sign agreements to license the media rights from each school, meaning a lot of legwork for the firms given the various local markets across the United States, executives said.

To address this, PlayOn! Sports has a deal with the National Federation of State High School Associations to livestream all of its post-season games, Rudolph said.

Washington, D.C.-based Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals, is testing a launch of high-school hockey on its subscription-based streaming platform, Monumental Sports Network.

"High school has always been this untapped giant," said Zach Leonsis,MonumentalSportsNetwork's general manager.

Monumental can livestream the games at a fraction of the cost of what it would do a high level, televised production, Leonsis said.

Leonsis estimates that to produce a game with one to three cameras will cost up to $2,000 per game, compared to a high level production which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He declined to comment on whether Monumental pays for the rights to livestream the games.

WGL Holdings, which owns Washington Gas, has signed on with Monumental for a year-long deal to be the presenting sponsor of the high school sports coverage.

Often in instances where firms are paying schools to stream their games, they are likely paying only a few thousand dollars - or are entering in some kind of revenue share, said Kulkarni.

To that end, Los Angeles-based Pluto TV, a free streaming service with hundreds of online shows, is looking to buy or license rights for high school sports, said Ken Parks, executive chair.

"We have a big demo of high school aged viewers," said Parks. "We think there is a great opportunity."

(Reporting By Jessica Toonkel in New York, additional reporting by Anjali Athvaley; Editing by Anna Driver and Bernard Orr)