Startup Aims To Fund, Shake Up Youth Sports

By Diane Mastrull The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Since being launched in 2015, "LeagueSide" will have helped secure about $2 million in funding for 600 sports leagues in 16 states by year's end.

PHILADELPHIA

Evan Brandoff and Zubin Teherani are living the dream as two single guys in their mid-20s sharing an apartment in the city, free of daunting family responsibilities. In other words, they have no kids.

Yet, they work on behalf of them daily as founders of the startup LeagueSide.

Written atop the white board in the conference room of their coworking space is this mission statement: "To make youth sports more accessible."

Their method is to help money-squeezed sports organizations reach beyond the traditional sources of funds for uniforms, equipment, field rentals and referees, mom-and-pop pizza shops, local hardware stores and, of course, players' parents, to land sponsorships from regional and national brands.

"We want to give every single child the opportunity in the United States to be able to play organized sports," said Brandoff, 25, LeagueSide's chief executive.

Since being launched in 2015, LeagueSide will have helped secure about $2 million in funding for 600 leagues in 16 states by year's end, Brandoff said. Half of that funding will have been secured just this year, he said. He declined to disclose the firm's take.

While its millennial staff of 12 is expected to expand to 20 by year's end, it still wouldn't be big enough for LeagueSide to realize its goal of opening regional offices. So LeagueSide soon plans a Series A fund-raising round of $3 million to $5 million. Last year, it raised $750,000 from investors, including Ben Franklin Technology Partners, cigar entrepreneur Marvin Samel and former NFL safety Ronnie Lott.

"What is so exciting as we grow," said Teherani, 26, LeagueSide's chief operating officer, "is not only is this a scalable company that is worth a lot of money; simultaneously, we're giving back money to communities."

The idea came to Brandoff a couple of years ago when he was in Detroit as a Venture for America fellow and running business-to-business sales and advertising for Benzinga.com, a financial-media company.

While volunteering at a basketball tournament, he noticed the rapt attention of parents of the boys and girls on the court, and realized the sales opportunity. He also recognized what companies wanting to reach that audience could do to help defray the cost of playing youth sports for families.

"Effective local marketing plus helping kids play sports equals huge win-win," said Brandoff, who met Teherani at Venture for America training.

Fragmentation makes reaching youth sports audiences a monumental effort, even for large companies with big marketing budgets.

LeagueSide estimates that there are 38 million kids playing youth sports in the United States. Many towns have multiple sports leagues, almost all run by volunteers.

With its hyperlocal sponsorships, LeagueSide can "cut through the noise and reach families in an engaged setting" with customized campaigns, including backstop banners, redeemable coupons, coach-of-the-year contests, email blasts, and social-media posts, Brandoff said.

"Through LeagueSide," he said, "brands can reach families in their most engaged and happy setting, when their kids are creating memories, playing sports."

The sponsorships, at least in theory, can enable leagues to lower enrollment costs for families and cover the expenses for kids whose parents can't afford to pay anything.

Brandoff said LeagueSide's work has "impacted" well over 500,000 families, either in lower registration fees, or with discounted prices through coupons and gift cards to sponsoring businesses.

Brandoff said "thousands of kids" who could not afford to join a youth league have gotten the opportunity because of LeagueSide-arranged sponsors.

Working in some of Philadelphia's neediest neighborhoods, Felix Agosto, chief executive of MVP360 Community Programs, said he has kept registration costs at around $40 a sport despite continuing participation growth since he founded the youth sports nonprofit in 2012.

"The more kids we have, the more costs," said Agosto, a father of two (with a third on the way) who doesn't like to ask parents to do fundraisers because "they're already contributing a registration fee."

So, when he heard of LeagueSide, Agosto figured there was no harm in trying it, especially when he found out that, unlike other sponsorship programs, it did not require him to sell anything.

The only ask, Agosto said, is that MVP360 make two social-media posts, send out two emails to parents, and hang a banner at sporting events, all referencing LeagueSide-affiliated sponsors.

For MVP360, those have been a health care network, law firm and concussion center. Their contributions have ranged from $1,500 to $2,500 per sports program, Agosto said.

The emails he sends parents usually contain something educationally relevant from the sponsors, such as tips on avoiding or treating injuries. LeagueSide is responsible for creating the content, which Agosto said organizations such as his welcome, given limited resources.

"This is actually cost-effective for us, for the parents, and for the companies," he said, noting that the sponsors are "reaching an audience they might not necessarily reach with a TV ad or a newspaper ad."

That view is shared by Jamison Young, a field marketing manager for Smoothie King, a New Orleans-area-based franchise specializing in blended drinks and healthy snacks.

While radio has a broad reach, its audience often is "hearing a message and forgetting about it," said Young, who majored in advertising and marketing at Villanova University. His Smoothie King territory is the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

LeagueSide "allows us to make this small universe of moms, dads, coaches and athletes," Young said. "They see a banner at the field every Saturday and then, at home, they will get an email from the league containing a Smoothie King coupon, and on another Saturday, on the field our store owners will be there sampling."

So far, Smoothie King is happy, Young said. He cited a post-campaign survey last year in Washington showing that 41 percent of people who had never heard of or visited a Smoothie King before the season had become customers.

As business grows, LeagueSide's labor-intensive work gets harder.

For instance, Emily Haas, senior campaign executive, said she scours maps to find promising regions for a particular sponsor, then researches the sports leagues there in search of the demographics best matching the kind of consumers the business wants to reach.

Part of the new investments LeagueSide hopes to attract will be spent on building out a tech platform to help automate that process, Teherani said.

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