Combining the power of sports and academics, SportsHi is a high school student-athlete network where members empower each other to be engaged with sports and their wider community.
Founded by Alex Miles, SportsHi’s purpose is to give more high school students a chance at higher education. He recognised the problems that youths were having with access to sports. Those problems were cost and support, and if those problems became a barrier to participation in sports then it could have a significant impact on a student’s education.
SportsHi’s platform is broken down in three ways: communication within high school sports and teams, high school sports content and college opportunities which gives students a chance to communicate directly with college coaches.
This conversation took place just days after the company announced their first College Scholarship Award.
The impact of COVID-19 has been discussed so widely at the elite sports level, but the fears at youth and high school sports level, the social impact, scholastic impacts, to me, haven’t been discussed as much. What particular fears do you have? And then how it might be overcome?
Alex Miles: “For me, and for us at SportsHi, there’s probably two things that could negatively impact us: Less sports is the obvious one. Due to COVID-19, parents are somewhat fearful of being in team-based tournaments or matches and could potentially pull their children out of the sport. That can have a ripple effect across youth sports dramatically. That would be the first, and obviously that has an impact on what we’re doing as well. Luckily, we’re still seeing high engagement on the platform as virtual communities and networks are now just as important and, to be completely honest, I think kids are just bored at home.
“On the other side is the youth sports market. The youth sports market in the US has grown from 9 to 16 billion US dollars in the last five years and it’s expected to go to 41 billion in the next five years. I think that will take a little bit longer now to get there and because of that the investment in youth sports might be impacted as well.
“In terms of a response to COVID-19, we’ve had a positive response and have doubled our acquisition each month since March. A feature in our app allows students to connect seamlessly with college coaches. Harvard, Brown, Yale and Penn State are some examples of colleges we’re working with. We’ve seen a 12x uplift from students in just that feature alone. We’re finding students are actually looking for more virtual options and I think what we find, from a social network and a technology standpoint, is that younger people generally adopt these technologies sooner. We’re definitely seeing that now and I’m confident, in the next 6 to 12 months, there’ll be a ripple effect of the college coaches themselves requiring more virtual and digital tools at their fingertips.”
There is a connection between high schoolers and college coaches where it’s based on positive connections and content which actually goes against the fears generally people have, especially younger people with social media, in trying to put the best foot forward. The fear of criticism and ridicule can be quite disheartening. Whereas you kind of flip it in a way where the mission is to building meaningful connections.
AM: “I’m proud that we have not had one report of cyberbullying on our platform. We’ve been in the app store now for 15 months and the worst we’ve had is one inappropriate photo which was uploaded by a student. Other than that, we’ve had no issues. Cyberbullying is a big one for Gen-Z. They are generally trying to craft a digital image and persona that is separate to their real life personality and that comes with potential backlash.
“The fact that we haven’t seen any backlash is great and I think the reason for that is because we are guiding people through high school sports, and the cherry for a lot of students is college opportunities. It’s not only just the big universities. I speak to a lot of division 2 and 3 college coaches who are helping students whether it’s a full sports scholarship, an academic scholarship, or even just helping the student get into the college itself. That social impact, from an education and life skill point-of-view, is very different to what you’re seeing on other social networks.”
How central have students been to the build of the platform; getting student driven feedback and bringing them in on that journey? How central have they been in making sure the ecosystem works and gives them these good outcomes such as communicating with coaches, getting to colleges, and looking at those scholarship options?
AM: “You just nailed our differentiator. The differentiator of our company is that we put the students first in everything we do, whether it’s deciding a marketing strategy or a new product feature, the students help lead the discussion as well as our decision making. They really do dictate what we build and they’ve been instrumental from the very first day we started thinking about the idea all the way through to today.
“We now have over 750 high school ambassadors who are getting onto a weekly Zoom call with myself. They’re on our SportsHi app, in our group chat, consistently giving us feedback. A lot of them have access to our test prototypes and there is a clear trust between us. It really is the core of our company and the intangible differentiator to help us take on this market.”
What is next on the roadmap? While your short-term roadmap has altered, long-term may not have necessarily changed. What are some other product developments on the horizon?
AM: “We’ve been working extremely hard on version two of the app which is due to release in August. We’ve been working on this now for about six months or so and the team truly believes this is going to change our company for the better. The high school year here in the United States goes from September to June and version two will be ready by the time school goes back. It’s aligning with our marketing strategies, which is our college scholarship program, our ambassador program, as well as our digital marketing strategies. Internally, we kind of feel like there’s a perfect storm brewing for the start of the new school year and it really does surround this version 2 that we’ve been iterating with our high school students.”
The ambassadors and the scholarship offerings are interesting pillars. We’ll go with the ambassador stuff first. By having ambassadors what does that do for the platform and how does it serve the students?
AM: “The ambassador program has evolved from our initial internship which we did for high school students. Typically, we bring in college students, although there was a big demand for high school students wanting internships so they could upskill. We gave a few a chance last year and a lot of them outperformed some of the other part-time employees we had working on user growth. We found the influence high school students have within their school was so powerful that they were able to get a lot of students onto the app. We then asked a lot of the high school interns why they were coming in and wanting to do this with us? It came down to two things: the first thing was boosting their CV. They were looking at college opportunities and needed more rounded content on their CV. The second was to upskill and experience what it’s like working with a tech company.
“We thought to ourselves, how could we scale this while still upholding those value props for the students? We then looked at an automated 12 week program which requires the students to fulfil 6 different tasks focusing on design, SEO, video editing, and creating a LinkedIn etc. We have someone internally that manages the program and we launched in January, before COVID-19. We had about 70 students involved in the program, itself. Since we’ve all be been in lockdown, we’ve now grown rapidly to over 750. On our end, we do a weekly Zoom call where I lead the call and discuss different ideas and we’ve been getting more than 100 students on there each week. Sometimes we bring on our advisors/athletes. Last week, we had Jay Hernandez, an Assistant Coach for the Charlotte Hornets. He did an open Q&A for 30 minutes with our high school ambassadors. The week prior, we had Tiff Faaee, former USA rugby captain who shared how sports had positively impacted her life.
“What we’re finding during quarantine is that students are extremely engaged and want to have an impact within a company. It really has been an amazing experience the last few months building this program with them. We’re looking at scaling this by creating club chapters at different schools and appointing Presidents to help grow SportsHi from within their school, but with the core mission of increasing participation and engagement with the high school sports community. We believe this is a massive opportunity for us to infinitely scale from within schools and empower a lot of the students to be accountable for it.”
It’s a really interesting take on high school students generating content. This is tangible content that showcases their roundedness as people and can really drive their resume and applications. Tell me about how you’ve evolved the students’ abilities to develop user generated content.
AM “I did a lot of market research on the youth sports market before starting SportsHi and noticed a lot of companies trying to own the media space. It’s extremely capital intensive and costs a lot of money to produce all that content. I thought there must be a way to be able to empower high school students themselves to be content creators and create a user generated content (UGC) network. There’s just too many high school games in the United States to be able to follow everyone. You need to encourage students to create and share the content themselves, so that’s what we’ve done. Now we’re looking to customise and distribute that content in a way the youth sports space has never seen before.
“So, the UGC play for us has always been top of the list. I think what’s important when trying to be successful is empowering all student athletes. A lot of people taking on this market might think that getting the top 2-5% of talented high school athletes is enough. But you know what, the best player on the team isn’t always the best content creator, even though they’re generally the subject. In my experience, the best content creators are the role players or benchwarmers. They carry the water bottles or manage the team. In some cases, they don’t even play sport, although they have an intense passion for it. We try to focus more on these students as we feel the content creation can benefit the most.”
Do you have a great user example?
AM: “Alec is a good example. He made a request for Brown and Harvard. He wasn’t the ‘top 5%’ of high performing athletes, but he was a smart kid and top of his grade, academically. We made the connection to those coaches and he got accepted into Brown and is on the waitlist for Harvard. That’s an example of how we can actually help that other 95% of student athletes. I talk about this all the time, internally. I’m obsessed with that other 95% because if we can tap into that community and get them engaged, the top 5% will look after itself.”
You’re abstracting or stripping away the fuzziness of how people might be able to apply and attend an Ivy League school. Can you also comment on the college scholarship program?
AM: “I think academics is playing more and more of a role in the college athletics selection process. The majority of the conversations I have with college coaches is around academics and what the minimum GPA requirement is for their college. That’s what we want to promote, as well, and is part of the college scholarship award application. We’ve partnered with Santia Deck, who is the first multi-million dollar signing for the WFLA (the female NFL) and a collegiate track and field star at Texas A&M. We’re awarding a $2,500 scholarship to one of our users and a big part of the application is their grades. Without the grades, you can’t be successful in sport. That’s just my belief. By playing sports at a young age, you increase your chances of improving your academics as well. This is our first scholarship and we plan to roll out many more in the future with the hope of increasing the amount on each. A lot of student-athletes can’t afford higher education and, as a for-purpose company, we want to help bridge the gap and break down any financial barriers the students face”
And finally, your targets for growth. How many students do you want on the platform in the next 12 months?
AM: “When we first launched the app we were dealing with hundreds of students. We’re now working with thousands. For us, the main target is to hit critical mass. 2020 for us is all about growth. It’s all about potentially bringing on a strategic brand partner with us as well and to help validate some of our business model.
“Critical mass, for us, has always been in the tens of thousands. That’s written on the wall of the office and that’s what we’re striving for every day because we know we can have a similar type of impact at that scale.”