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Jon Wekkin is a sports broadcaster whose play-by-play accounts of Twin Cities high school and college sports aren't carried on any TV channel, cable network or radio station.
Instead, Wekkin and a team of professional announcers broadcast games at www.mnsportsnetwork.com, where the menu includes live and archived hockey, football and basketball games, plus a smattering of wrestling and volleyball. Hundreds of viewers watch for free on nights when the website broadcasts multiple games simultaneously, most produced by a company crew on site.
Webcasting, or streaming live video and audio over the Internet, is hardly new. But in the age of YouTube, Wekkin's Minnesota Sports Broadcast Network (MSBN) appears to be offering the most extensive high school sports webcasts in the Twin Cities. Schools pay $1,000 a year or more for the service.
Wekkin, MSBN's owner and CEO, got the idea while he was a communications student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s. He was struck by the fact that rural high school sports were broadcast by local radio stations, while metro area high school games were rarely broadcast.
"It isn't profitable enough for these bigger-market stations to incur the cost of sending broadcast crews to high school games," said Wekkin, who started MSBN in 2005 using his own money and what he could borrow from relatives. "But with advent of web streaming, my thought was that I could use it to do multiple games simultaneously, which a radio station couldn't do."
"No one in the country was doing this when we started," Wekkin recalled. "Because there was no business to pattern ourselves after, we were out there flying blind."
The niche has since attracted several competitors. Fox Sports North, a regional unit of giant News Corp., also streams some high school games using professional commentators, but it offers fewer total games than MSBN does. Because Fox does the games as a sidelight to its pro-sports work, it doesn't charge schools.
Other web-streaming firms, such as Webcast America of Annandale, Minn., and Stretch Internet of Mesa, Ariz., charge Minnesota schools for less-extensive webcasting service that doesn't include the computer and camera equipment or the production expertise that MSBN provides.
Move to video
At first all Wekkin's webcasts were audio only; video began in 2008 and is now used in about half of all games MSBN produces. The video quality approximates that of YouTube to make sure that viewers with older computers or slower broadband connections can still watch, he said.
Joel Olson, the athletic director at Forest Lake Area High School, said he's been impressed by the quality of MSBN's audio-only webcasts of the school's football and basketball games. The school started the MSBN service when only audio was available, and never upgraded to video.
"If we have a target audience, it might be the grandmas and grandpas who can't get to the sporting events, but want to be able to listen to them," Olson said. "I don't want it to be a frustration for listeners. If MSBN can do a really good job with audio, I'd rather have that."
MSBN will webcast video of about 80 events in a dozen different sports this year for the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said Gene McGivern, St. Thomas sports information director. The school lets its students produce the webcasts, and pays MSBN about $4,000 a year to put them online.
"We could do webcasting in-house, but we don't have the time or the energy to handle the advertising or to worry about the Web servers crashing if there's a big game with a lot of website hits," McGivern said. "MSBN's main advantage is they're very budget-conscious and very efficient. They've grown from a start-up and done a great job."
The breadth of MSBN's high school offerings could be seen on Friday nights last fall, when it webcast as many as a dozen Minnesota high school football games simultaneously. About three-fourths of them were produced by the MSBN staff, and another quarter were audio-feeds from rural Minnesota radio stations.
Wekkin said the average game draws about 400 to 450 computer connections, but he argues that represents even more people.
"About 40 percent of our log-in viewers report that more than one person is listening," he said.
The company webcast 1,328 events in 2011, and Wekkin said that number may exceed 1,500 this year.
Wekkin doesn't disclose revenues for his privately owned MSBN. But it's a tough business, even for a scrappy entrepreneur such as Wekkin who still has a day job at Data Recognition Corp. in Maple Grove. MSBN, a small company with 14 paid employees and 14 unpaid student interns, has seen its traditional revenue sources -- production contracts with public schools, sales of commemorative CDs and DVDs, and website advertising from local businesses -- suffer in a difficult economy.
He's not alone. While it's technically feasible to stream a live sports event over the Internet to a viewer anywhere in the United States, local streaming companies with small audiences haven't gained much traction, even in good times, because their broadcasting costs are high in relation to their revenues, said Dan Rayburn, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio, Texas.
"I don't see consumers willing to pay $100 a year to watch live webcasts of local high school baseball," Rayburn said. "It works if the school pays the production costs, but even then the schools don't have a lot of money."
For competitors, the economic situation has resulted in some significant changes in business model. Brent Stromme, CEO of Webcast America, said he's switching from charging schools a fee to offering webcasting service for free and trying to make it up on advertising.
"We have schools that can't afford it," Stromme said. "So we need to be advertising-based."
Wekkin is pursuing the less-drastic strategy of diversification. He has branched out from high school sports to serve small colleges, such as Dakota County Technical College, and to non-school events such as a 2010 regional American Legion baseball championship for high school students.
He also signed up minor-league sports teams, such as the St. Paul Saints, whose baseball games he began webcasting in 2008. More recently he signed on the Minnesota Junior Hockey League, a college-prep organization that wants MSBN to experiment with an Internet-based pay-per-view business model -- something MSBN and some competitors haven't found to be practical before.
As a result of his efforts to diversify, high school games made up about 65 percent of Wekkin's webcasts in 2011, down from 95 percent in 2006.
Now 40, Wekkin considers webcasting a labor of love.
"What's exciting to me is to have an idea, a concept, and go through the metamorphosis of bringing it to reality," Wekkin said. "It's a frustrating process, but it's very interesting."
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553