Lexington tech company iHigh poising itself to be ubiquitous

Lexington firm aims to be the go-to site for videos of youth activities

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2012 

Unless you are, or know, a teen playing sports, you might never have heard of iHigh, although it has been around for more than a decade.

Specializing in broadcasting youth sports and activities online, the Lexington company thinks it may have finally caught the profitable wind that links its proprietary technology with the burgeoning market for specialty Web sites — some of them far removed from high school gymnasiums.

The company operates on the notion that Internet surfers want to see the young people in their lives play sports. They also want to see them make trombones growl, show cattle, fly over the pommel horse or sing opera. Developing a way for aunts in Ohio to watch basketball games in Owensboro — while helping the team earn a few bucks — is one of those "why didn't we do this before?" ideas.

But it's not limited to Kentucky or the United States. IHigh.com broadcasts videos of basketball in Puerto Rico, judo in Singapore, and band concerts, ball games, graduations and plays just about anywhere.

"Avenues they bring to the table were not available at our level before," said Julian Tackett, chief executive officer of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. "It has unbelievable growth potential. ... Virtually anybody can use it."

Said A.J. Stadelmeyer, who helps oversee Ashland's Paul G. Blazer High School's iHigh content — which includes games, videos and photos from not only the school's athletic teams, but also its theater, band and choir: "The parents want to see the kids. That gets the hits."

Here's how it works: Schools and other organizations sign on with iHigh.com. They get a list of equipment that works best with iHigh technology and a venue to upload videos and other school information. After initial setup, the school or group can broadcast just about any event or video it wants to. Viewers can watch live streaming video of events, or stored videos later.

How is iHigh different from YouTube, that Grand Central Station of Internet video? Unlike Google-owned YouTube, iHigh provides resources to help schools figure out how to structure broadcasts, set up an online presence and recruit advertisers. (IHigh does not offer comment posting.)

Like Yahoo and Facebook, iHigh offers free services because of its regional and national advertising base, which it says is all high school age-appropriate. IHigh webinars, for example, are sponsored by Chevrolet.

Numbers and partnerships

IHigh now hosts 50,566 total videos. The site tallies 1.5 million monthly unique visitors and recorded 110 percent growth in 2011 over 2010, said iHigh's president, chief operating officer and co-founder, Tim Campbell.

Its system has 166 copyrighted modules — features on the Web site, like a video player or a photo browser — that are proprietary to iHigh; 95 of them were developed in Lexington.

In January, iHigh launched a partnership with the mammoth Internet sports site Rivals.com. Last year, it partnered with Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, to begin hosting the Alltech Ag Network.

IHigh has a partnership with the Herald-Leader's Web site, Kentucky.com, for video content; retired Herald-Leader publisher Tim Kelly is a senior adviser to the CEO and acts as a liaison for the company with newspapers and newspaper companies.

Veteran sports marketer Jim Host, chairman and CEO of iHigh and former chairman and CEO of Host Communications, said there are 40 different channels on iHigh. Viewers can watch high school graduations, see a University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of Roméo et Juliette or tune in for the "Hoosier Hysteria" site that offers up great moments in Indiana basketball history.

Its top-draw video is of a charity game in North Carolina that featured professional basketball players — including former UK star John Wall — at 1.7 million views. The No. 2 video, at 90,000, is a talk show featuring University of Louisville sports.

IHigh hit another milestone in January, when it announced a partnership with iHoops, the online youth basketball program of the NBA and NCAA launched in 2009.

"What they didn't have was the ability to show games," Campbell said of iHoops. "It was a big deal."

IHigh had already partnered with U.S.A. Swimming in September, and earlier this year, it announced an alliance with the National High School Rodeo Association.

All from downtown

IHigh employs 25 people. The company's nerve center is a downtown Lexington conference room, in the Festival Market office formerly used by Meridian Advertising. It's filled with guys on laptops around a long oval table, monitoring iHigh's performance and powering themselves with coffee, Ale-8-One and crackers. Outside, a woman who used to work for ACS's Lexington-based Apple Computers tech-support call center keeps an eye on iHigh activity.

As a marketer, Host, 74, has long thought of the education community as a place where allegiances are waiting to be formed with media that will stick with students as they age, as their interests shift and new loyalties emerge.

IHigh was launched in 1999, near the height of the dot-com bubble, by Campbell and Rick Ford, who were executives at Host Communications. (Both are still with the company; Ford serves as head of sales for iHigh.com and CEO of its sister company, iHigh Marketing.)

Its name is a fortunate amalgam of "Internet high school" established before the world was filled with iPods, iPads and iPhones.

More than a decade after the company's start amid happy projections of its Internet reach, and several years after the dot-com shakeout savaged many online companies, consumers are more technologically sophisticated, using smart phones and tablet computers and social media. iHigh's technology is correspondingly more consumer-driven.

Campbell said that in the years between its first incarnation and current run, iHigh focused on event marketing and kept up its networking with sports organizations.

Now, iHigh is ready for another run at the gold ring of Internet category-killer.

Growing the business

IHigh does particularly well at home in Kentucky but also in Minnesota and in the Atlanta and Chicago metropolitan areas.

Some videos on iHigh draw only a few hundred views. But it is volume and depth of market penetration that iHigh is after. A few hundred views multiplied by a few hundred events, and soon you're talking about real, meaningful viewership — particularly if those viewers are texting, tweeting and Facebooking about iHigh to others.

Teams and players on iHigh can compile their own "highlight reels" to audition for schools, scholarships and jobs. Others can broadcast play-by-play and "produce" games and performances.

All those activities require money, as any beleaguered school booster can tell you. So iHigh allows schools and organizations to sell ads on its site, at least partially relieving parents of the burden of thousands of fruit sales and car-wash fund-raisers. And unlike with those ubiquitous banners hanging on ball fields, on iHigh, companies can measure the number of eyes that hit the ads.

Some schools are making more than $20,000 on ad sales and merchandising from iHigh, Campbell said. Cincinnati's Archbishop Moeller High School has made $55,000 since coming on board with iHigh. Fayette County Public Schools have made $35,000 and expect to triple that in the coming year, Campbell said.

Commercial breaks can be broadcast via iHigh's ad server, as can player-of-the-game competitions and polls. Another capability of iHigh is that if an event is sold out, the broadcast signal can be transmitted in real time to a nearby overflow location such as a restaurant.

"We just took all that knowledge and made it intuitive," Campbell said.

Poised for the future

The company is now targeting entire leagues and coalitions of organizations. Last year, Alltech came on board with agriculture and arts channels. Alltech's president and founder, Pearse Lyons, said that while consumers had moved farther away from the sources of their food, an online network could help in "narrowing the gap between family and farm."

IHigh technology may also be used to help small organizations and local governments replace clunky technology to make their communications "more multimedia-rich," Campbell said. Schools are using iHigh to post PTA meetings and other school functions.

This could lead iHigh to branch out into other areas, such as military and church applications.

"There are sports and music of all varieties around the globe that would like to have this technology, and it's just a matter of how fast we can get it to them," Campbell said. "It works well here, but it works everywhere."

Before, Host said, the work of five to 10 people would be required to broadcast one event. Now, with iHigh's "dashboard" technology, 250 broadcasts can be coordinated with two people.

Member schools and organizations control their own pages, designs and colors. Schools, for instance, can broadcast their own morning announcements and news reports and conduct polls.

Schools can also set up online storefronts where they sell T-shirts, caps and collectables that can be personalized.

Youngest entrepreneur

Here's another side of iHigh: In a single take, a video camera swoops in on Tates Creek High School. To a pounding beat, the camera weaves in and out of rooms where students cheer, dance, sing and do back flips. It finally winds up in a pumped-up gymnasium pep rally.

Even if you had never heard of Tates Creek High School, the video would make you a fan of the Commodores — and the clip's young director, Dorian Hairston.

Hairston, a Tates Creek senior who is going to UK on an academic scholarship but plans to play college baseball, has a single life goal: He wants to run iHigh.

Energetic and personable, Hairston is like a young Jim Host.

Host finds this idea as delightful as having the words "powered by iHigh" ubiquitous across the Internet, dominating youth sports events but also crossing subject-matter boundaries and even partnering with print partners who could use a technological boost. He rattles off the possibilities: iMilitary, iChurch, iSing.

Said Host: "A lot of schools are using it for things that we didn't have a clue."

Hairston's video illustrates the level of sophistication to which iHigh aspires: not just broadcasting games, but taking over entire communications-market groups by dint of its easy-to-use technology.

"There are sports and music of all varieties around the globe that would like to have this technology," Campbell said. "And it's just a matter of how fast we can get it to them."

Reach Cheryl Truman at (859)231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3202 or on Twitter at @CherylTruman.

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