Two youth coaches wanted a way for Grandma to see kids' games. Now their live webcasting is catching on, supporters say.
Andrew Brown, from Webcast America, and Mound- Westonka Webheads advisor Kristin Wallace, setup the computer programs that sends the webcast to the internet. Keely Shephard (in back) followed the action with a video camera connected to the laptop.
Brent Stromme wanted nothing more than for his 83-year-old mother in Detroit Lakes, Minn., to be able to watch her grandsons play sports. While coaching his son's Annandale youth baseball team, Stromme and a fellow coach had an "aha" moment: "What if we could connect her to their games via the Internet?"
Thanks to Stromme's year-old enterprise, Webcast America, which streams live webcasts of high school sports and other events over the Internet with play-by-play announcing and camera work done by local students, Gertrude Stromme will log onto her computer Friday night to watch her grandson play basketball for Annandale High.
"I just make myself a little thing of hors d'oeuvres and some popcorn, wrap up in my blanket and pull up the game," she said. "I cheer right along all by myself. It's just wonderful."
That picture of his mother cheering on her grandkids from the family room is what it's all about, Stromme said.
His new venture, which he co-owns with four other people, is a win-win-win for high school athletics, school districts and communities, Stromme said.
Students get paid -- and acquire valuable experience -- when they film events, do play-by-play sports commentary and webcast events live on the Web, free to viewers. Parents never have to miss one of their children's games. And it's an opportunity for schools to showcase their offerings. Events are streamed live on the Webcast America website, www.webcast50.com, then archived for a year.
What's the catch?
"There isn't one. That's what everyone wants to know," Stromme said.
When a school signs up, Webcast America invests about $3,000 for camera equipment, wireless hookups and a laptop. Students, called "webheads," are trained and paid $10 for each event they cover.
More than 20 schools in the Twin Cities area have contracted with Webcast America for the 2008-09 school year, putting more than 150 students behind cameras and microphones. The entire Wright County Conference is participating this year, and more than half of the schools in the Minnesota Christian Athletic Association have signed on. More schools are showing interest every week, Stromme said.
At a recent Mound-Westonka High School girls basketball game, ninth-graders Kayla Schultz and Sam Hulme handled the camera work and play-by-play. They admitted that the money was a great incentive for them to become webheads, but they're also learning a lot. Both students want to pursue careers in the technology field, so even when problems arise, learning to troubleshoot is a valuable experience.
Webcast America also pays an adviser to oversee the students, and at the end of the year, Stromme said the company will return 20 percent of its profits to the schools to use however they wish. The company hopes to make money by selling ads and sponsorships on its website to local advertisers.
"These are quality guys doing business for the right reason," said Scot Kerbaugh, Annandale High School principal. "This is a success story, and it's good for high school athletics, too."
The possibilities for Webcast America are endless, its supporters say. Some schools are beginning to webcast non-sporting events such as homecoming coronation and school board meetings. This spring, Stromme expects to stream 30 to 50 high school graduation ceremonies live through the Webcast America website.
There are other advantages to having games archived: Athletes can study their performance or study the games of other teams. College recruiters can use the service to scout potential athletes. And family members and friends living anywhere in the world can watch live events. Traffic to the Webcast America site comes from people in nearly 25 countries, including Iran, China, Sweden and Spain.
Kurt Jaeger, the activities director at Providence Academy, a private Catholic school in Plymouth, said he envisions webcasting becoming an elective media class within the school's curriculum.
When Jaeger decided the school should webcast events, he researched other webcasting companies, but found that with each, the school would either have to pay for the service, viewers would have to pay per-view to watch events, or the school would have to spend $5,000 on equipment to get up and running on its own.
None of the companies Jaeger found had all of the elements that Webcast America provides. "The education component of this concept is so completely different," he said.
In Minnesota, webcasting high school games has been tried before. Crystal Clear Sports Inc. was founded in 2002 to provide high school sports fans with live audio and video webcasts, but it folded last summer after the company missed its revenue goals. The company charged viewers on a pay-per-view basis, a model that Stromme said "will never work."
The Minnesota Sports Broadcast Network, www.mnsportsnetwork.com, started webcasting free audio of high school sports in 2005, but not video. The company considered offering live video, has the capability to do it, but is currently happy with audio alone, said its communications director, Steve Pesek. Most of the announcers who do play-by-play are trained professionals, former coaches or players, or college interns.
Fox Preps also webcasts a few games live each week.
Although Webcast America isn't profitable yet, its supporters are confident it will be soon. Last week, Stromme hired three sales people to secure advertising and community sponsorships.
"I don't know how they couldn't grow," Kerbaugh said. "They have a product that's valuable, not just to schools in Wright County, but every school in the state."
Stromme, who also owns a painting and design company, has focused his energy exclusively on Webcast America since October 2007.
"We knew we'd take a hit on the front end," Stromme said. "We don't care about how much money we make ... we want people to be connected and be two places at once the way they've never been able to do before."
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715