An entrepreneur’s multimedia ESPN for kids, “the next generation of sports fans”
John West, M.B.A. ’95, golfs with his two young sons, Jack and Danny. “They love it, but they wouldn’t sit and watch a four-hour game on TV,” he reports. “Yet if you give them clips with the game’s highlights and interviews with players, then they will.” The same goes for football, West notes. “It’s a complicated game that many kids cannot sit through. But if you condense the content and make it fast-paced, with graphics and stats on the side of the screen, and interviews with players, and audio—more going on for kids, who are now wired to multitask—then they will be engaged.”
At least that’s what West and other co-founders of The Whistle are betting on. The new company promotes spectator sports to children from six to 14 through content that is reconstituted to make it more digestible, and then distributed through the media platforms that young people frequent far more than adults do, including YouTube, major gaming consoles, and apps. The Whistle’s own highly interactive website is being created by kids with input from adults; it is up in a beta version that will be fully available in September. The company is also preparing a half-hour cable show, scheduled to start in September, for the NBC Sports Network.
“Kids are not watching television in the traditional way,” notes West, an entrepreneur who has founded and sold two other companies, and was largely influenced by Grown Up Digital, by Don Tapscott (now on The Whistle’s advisory board). “To them, the media are like air: they want it when and how and where they are.” Kids between eight and 18 are spending more than seven hours a day on screens, often using more than one media platform at a time. Moreover, he says, the attention span of the average 10-year-old is only about seven minutes.
Those factors, he points out, prime those 42 million American children between six and 14—70 percent of whom are engaged in organized sports—for exactly what The Whistle has to offer: a mix of sports instruction, behind-the-scenes vignettes and kid interviews with pro and Olympic athletes, a bloopers segment, games and cartoons about sports, contests, sports history, news, statistics, and user-created programming. Kids can send in their own sports videos, for example, as well as track and promote their real-world and online sports achievements through the website. “We are making authentic sports content widely accessible, customizable, and shareable, all of which kids want,” West says. “Ultimately, what we’re creating is a community for the next generation of sports fans”—one without the R-rated movie trailers and ads selling alcohol and prescription drugs typically seen with adult sports programs.
It’s potentially a lucrative proposition. Sports Illustrated has a popular magazine for the younger set, along with a website, but no other digital or cable programming. Nickelodeon’s Games and Sports for Kids cable network channel came and went. “ESPN is dipping into the high-school-sports scene with programming and they do televise the Little League World Series,” West adds. But nobody has captured this market before. What makes West think The Whistle will succeed now? “I’m an entrepreneur and can take risks that big business can’t,” he answers.
More responsible, perhaps, is timing. The unprecedented ease and low cost of using media technology, creating content, and financing its distribution have changed things dramatically during the last few years. “Linear media are already out, and Xbox and YouTube are now ‘required’ by kids,” West says. “Our company boils down to two aspects: content and distribution. And within the last 18 months, technology has disrupted both. All of a sudden we have the ability to engage kids on multiple levels in a way we never could before. And allow them to actively participate in our media—that is the big difference between us and adult sports media.”
It costs less to produce and distribute such content now—and the costs are spread across more outlets, which decreases the investment risks. According to West, “Three years ago a linear cable network could not be launched for less than $100 million and took about five years to get to profitability.” The Whistle is being launched initially on six platforms for $20 million and expects to break even 18 months from now. Some $8 million has already been raised and the balance, West says, should be in place by the end of the year. Investors so far include Derek Jeter, Mia Hamm, Peyton Manning, Bob DuPuy (former president and COO of Major League Baseball), and Bob Pittman (founder of MTV and CEO of Clear Channel Communications). To create his team and advisory board, West spent six months living in airports, traveling to do research, and then another six months pulling together his core team. They came on board in 2009. His co-founders are Jeff Urban, a former senior vice president of sports marketing at Gatorade, and Kit Laybourne, former executive producer of Nickelodeon and Oxygen Media. (Laybourne’s wife, Gerry Laybourne, founder and former CEO of Oxygen Media and a former president of Disney-ABC Cable and Nickelodeon, is on the advisory board.)
Thriftily, The Whistle relies on kid-generated content for one-third of its content. “What used to require a large, $10,000 film camera, kids can now do with smart phones the size of their palms,” West notes. Given that information is available around the clock, “What kids really want is content that is authentic to them, that they can personalize—they want to find what is theirs out there and then they want to share it with friends. That is our content.” During Super Bowl season, for example, The Whistle asked kids to make a video about what happens at home during the game. “We got a lot of great stuff—moms and dads yelling at each other over plays,” West says, laughing. The Whistle also promotes do-it-yourself instant replays, in which kids re-create a great moment in sports history—the Immaculate Reception, for example (the controversial 1972 catch that tipped the balance of an AFC divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders, leading the Steelers to win for the first time in four decades). “This gets them out of the house and into the backyard,” West says. “They can add cool graphics and audio. And if the video is good enough, we’ll put it on the website.”
The “emerging distribution” includes high-speed broadband and television sets that function like another screen for computers to plug into. They come preloaded with Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, West says, “so you can watch NBC prime-time shows, or your seven-year-old son, on the television. And depending on the platform, kids can interact with the monitor a lot more than they ever have been able to before. HBO’s relationship with the customer means they put up a show and then sit back and wait for the Nielsen ratings. With YouTube, you can find out in the next minute whether people are watching your video and what they think. There’s a much more direct relationship with the customer.”
So far, The Whistle has content, distribution, and promotion agreements with the National Football League, U.S. Olympic Committee, Google, YouTube, and Microsoft Xbox; it is in talks with other major sports leagues and expects to have similar partnerships with all of them, along with Sony PlayStation and other gaming consoles. No live, professional-game rights are included; The Whistle’s creative team is producing segments from thousands of hours of library sports material held by the pro leagues.
Marketers will surely want to reach this audience as well. West says kids’ advertisers fall into two groups: food/beverage, and everything else—including sports, toys, and movies. The Whistle is in the process of signing agreements with major sports brands, such as Nike and Gatorade, but nothing is definitive. He emphasizes that he and his colleagues “have decided that we are only promoting healthy products for kids. You will not see any Big Macs advertised on The Whistle.”
On a personal note, West, a competitive collegiate rower at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is bothered by the high obesity rate among kids and by how screen-oriented they are: the correlation between the two does not elude him. Wouldn’t The Whistle only add to those problems? “We’re asked about that a lot,” he says. “Our perspective is that kids are already spending seven hours a day on screens, and there are two ways to address that. One is to limit screen time, which I think is a losing battle. Two is to put good content on the screen, which means our getting them outside to play sports and to move while they are watching.”
West was a U.S. Army brat, attending 13 schools in 13 years. He played Pop Warner football (he wasn’t very good, but he had fun), a couple of seasons of Little League baseball, and then soccer and tennis in high school. Employees at The Whistle, he notes, have business cards with snapshots of themselves as kids in their sports gear, “to help us remember the fun in sports, what we all loved about sports as kids.” He explains, “For me, growing up, sports taught three things: sportsmanship (don’t give up, be a good winner and loser, learn confidence and humility); math and science (I loved running the stats); and nutrition and health. But when I saw my kids and others watching sports on their screens eight hours a day, they weren’t getting any of those.”
At WPI he found his athletic niche: crew. “That was instrumental for me. I loved the competition and I learned a lot about teamwork and camaraderie: you rely completely on your teammates and they rely on you. If you are not pulling your weight or trying your hardest, you’re not going to win,” West says. “I was a late bloomer, and through rowing I learned what I was capable of.”
In 1988, West graduated with a degree in engineering and began paying off his college debt by working for an environmental engineering firm run by his crew coach. His rowing career peaked the following summer when he competed in the U.S. national championships. “I lost 30 pounds in three months” to row with the East Coast national lightweight training team, getting up at 4 a.m. to drive down to New London, Connecticut, where they were training, then up to Worcester for work, back down for the evening session, then to Cambridge, where he lived at the time. “It’s unbelievably fun, if you’re young—it’s a brutal, painful sport.” He hasn’t picked up an oar since. The noncompetitive, Zen-like meditative aspects that other rowers enjoy never appealed. “At the risk of offending the thousands of rowers on the Charles this morning,” he says, “I never got there. It’s more about pushing yourself.”
By that time, he had also seen ways to expand his boss’s business, “but he didn’t agree with me, so I went off and started my own company.” He ran that first start-up, Enstrat, an environmental-services company, throughout his years at Harvard Business School, selling it to a junior partner in 1996. After Harvard, he moved to Manhattan and joined a start-up management consulting firm filled with recent HBS grads, Mitchell Madison Group, and was elected to partner before leaving to launch his own financial-services company, Silver Oak Solutions, in 1999. There, he carved out a niche helping governments save money in procurement, ultimately building a $23-million, 100-person business that he sold in 2005.
At Harvard, he had become close friends with classmates Mark W. Adams (now president of Micron Technology) and Dean Dorman (president and CEO at Silver Oak with West, and now an operations executive for TPG). It was in 2008, while vacationing with them and their wives (West is married to Danielle West, A.L.B. ’01) in the British Virgin Islands that the idea for The Whistle arose. “We were all talking about watching sports with our kids and having to turn down the volume or change channels when ads for Viagra came on, and Mark Adams said, ‘Someone should create an ESPN for kids,’” recalls West. “I was the only one not working at the time, so I was elected to get on it.” (He was recovering from burnout after the Silver Oak transition.) Adams and West put up the initial several hundred thousand dollars of seed capital, and both Adams and Dorman, also an investor, are advisory board members.
West has “zero interest” in working for a big company, or even in running daily operations. His passion is innovating: building on an idea through research and putting together a team of talented people who are excited about working together to launch the concept. It’s like being in an eight-man shell on the water, exerting himself to the fullest, until the finish line is crossed. He has spent seven years at each of his previous companies; he is three-and-a-half years into The Whistle. He loves that Gerry Laybourne has told him, “You’re ignorant enough about the challenges of starting a media company to actually do it.” Says West, laughing, “I think it’s the highest compliment I could have gotten.”