David Rudolph of PlayOn! Sports: “It’s never as bad as it feels or as good as it seems”

It’s never as bad as it feels or as good as it seems. For me, the emotional ups and downs of starting a company have been much harder than anything else. Everything feels so much bigger, especially in the early days. That’s where a co-founder or senior team can help balance out the emotional yo-yo […]

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It’s never as bad as it feels or as good as it seems. For me, the emotional ups and downs of starting a company have been much harder than anything else. Everything feels so much bigger, especially in the early days. That’s where a co-founder or senior team can help balance out the emotional yo-yo you will feel.

New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.

As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing David Rudolph.

David Rudolph is the founder and CEO of PlayOn! Sports, which is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia with additional offices throughout the United States. Through a joint venture with the National Federation of State High School Associations, PlayOn created the NFHS Network to provide fans with the ability to stream high school sports on any device, from wherever they are. NFHS Network works with the majority of schools across the country and has provided more than 33 million dollars to the high school ecosystem through its High School Support Program and other initiatives.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Before PlayOn, I was the Senior Vice President, Strategy & New Products for Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. In this capacity, I directed a team charged with working across Turner divisions to identify and analyze market concepts and develop internal ideas leading to products of scale outside the company’s traditional network businesses. I was also responsible for helping to develop the company’s strategic direction as well as overseeing the company’s corporate development efforts, including minority investments and M&A activities.

Prior to that role, I was responsible for all day-to-day operations of Turner South, the first regional entertainment basic cable service in television history, including programming, budget and staffing matters. I wrote the business plan for and oversaw the development of Turner South, which launched October 1, 1999.

I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Tech.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I started my career at Turner Broadcasting and had the opportunity to be around Ted Turner. The company went through a series of mergers, first with Time Warner and then AOL, that reduced Ted’s role and influence over time, but you could still “feel” his presence. His vision of how the entertainment and television industry would evolve in the late 20th century were second to none and the bets he made based on that vision would change the world. Being able to experience the saying “skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been” at the start of my career was transformative for me and has guided how I have chosen to invest my time and energy professionally.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“What you do is who you are.” I first heard this expression from Ben Horowitz and he has gone on to write a book with the same title. This immediately resonated with me because it is a simple summary of how I have tried to live my life and operate professionally. What people and organizations say is one thing, but how they behave is what defines their character.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Two people who took the time to listen to my ideas and give me a shot early in my career were Bill Burke and Brad Siegel. I had this wacky idea for a regional entertainment network and Bill encouraged me to develop that idea into a business plan and guided me through the internal approval process. Once the concept was given the greenlight and became Turner South, Brad hired me to be the network’s first General Manager when I was only 26 years old. I knew even less about building and growing a business than my age would indicate. I’m still not sure why either of them gave me the opportunity they did, but I am forever appreciative of the doors they helped open.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite TV shows. The book by Buzz Bissinger is a classic and one of my favorites, and I loved how the TV show drew inspiration from the book but didn’t stick strictly to the characters or storyline. Friday Night Lights shows the significance and impact that high school sports can have on a small community. While the fictional town of Dillon was filled with social and racial division, the Friday night games were a place where all the whole community came together. “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.”

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Three character traits that have influenced my life are: persistence, authenticity, and intellectual curiosity. While hard work and luck are prerequisites for any business endeavor, persistence is often the trait that determines success or failure for a startup. Authenticity is important not only because it provides others with a genuine perspective on who you are, but also because it creates self-awareness and forces you to acknowledge your gaps and limitations. I’ve always found that I am intellectually curious and looking for opportunities to learn and grow. I like to be the person who solves problems, not the person who creates problems or just stands around and identifies them.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Hopefully we have provided value to families and fans by making it possible for them to watch games that they can’t attend in person. In the future, the archived games are valuable and should be meaningful to the student-athletes by preserving those moments. We also strive to be good stewards and partners for the high school sports ecosystem by providing resources and a new revenue stream. To date we have distributed more than 33 million dollars to schools and state associations, including more than 8 million dollars last year.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it?

As with all other forms of entertainment, Internet distribution of live sports is on the verge of revolutionizing the world of traditional TV distribution and consumption. New technologies are allowing more events to be produced, distributed, and watched by passionate fans on any device they want. This is expanding the number of live events that are available, the platforms they are available on, and the interactive experience that viewers can have while watching the game. While it will take some time for the winners to emerge and the business models to solidify, the real winners will be the fans who will have more opportunities to engage with the teams and sports they are passionate about.

How do you think this might change the world of sports?

More games will be available across more sports, many of which were considered too “niche” in the past to warrant broadcasting. Teams and leagues will be able to engage directly with their fans rather than having to go through intermediaries like television networks and cable operators. The viewing experience will get more immersive, engaging, and communal.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Not really. The winner in this will be the fan who will have access to the content they want, whenever they want it, and on whatever device is convenient.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the sports industry today? Can you explain? What can be done to address or correct those concerns?

  • I think we are overdue for an economic model correction in sports. Over the long-term corrections are healthy, but in the short-term they generate anxiety and angst as some of the incumbents exit and new players emerge.
  • I also think we need to have a real conversation about athletes’ mental health. While we need to continue to protect their physical safety and health, we also need to acknowledge that today’s athletes are under increased pressure and scrutiny at an earlier and earlier age. Social media is fanning the flames that are already there.
  • Finally, I think the continued trend toward professionalization of youth sports is a mistake that will create long-term issues up and down the food chain. Everyone benefits from longer participation in a sport and not just passive viewing of sports.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. It’s never as bad as it feels or as good as it seems. For me, the emotional ups and downs of starting a company have been much harder than anything else. Everything feels so much bigger, especially in the early days. That’s where a co-founder or senior team can help balance out the emotional yo-yo you will feel.
  2. Be slow to hire and quick to fire. In the early days you are desperate for any help you can get and a lot of times you don’t even know exactly what you need. But as the business grows and you start hiring more specialist and less generalists, each new senior hire takes on added importance. Take your time to make sure the fit is right, but when you make a mistake, don’t hesitate to make a change. One bad hire in the early years can cause damage that takes years to reverse.
  3. While you wear a lot of hats as CEO, you have one job — make sure the company doesn’t run out of money. Fundraising and revenue generation must be top of mind every single day. If you have cash in the bank, then you have time to figure things out. But the quickest way for your vision to die is to run out of money.
  4. Focus on the unit economics from the start. It’s tempting to get caught up in the big picture (total revenue, year on year revenue growth) but build a plan for your unit economic model from day 1 and stay hyper focused on tracking your progress towards that plan. If you get the unit economics right, then the business will scale very efficiently. However, if you get it wrong then you will be fighting an uphill battle no matter how big the company gets.
  5. Leadership is lonely. Many people told me this saying, so I was aware going in. But it is still one of the hardest emotional adjustments to make. Find a support network (family, friends, other startup CEO’s) outside of work to help you manage this.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think we have a real problem in our country with the trend toward professionalization of youth sports. The “up or out” mentality is driving kids away from long-term participation and the resources that are required to participate at the highest level are making it inaccessible for many athletes and their families. High school sports are a buffer against this trend as it is available to everyone. But many athletes are dropping out of sports before they even get to high school. We have to find a way to regain some balance where the top athletes have a chance to compete against the best, while the rest of us can participate in sports as a lifelong interest and extract all the benefits that come with that.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Jeff Bezos. Like the experience I had with Ted Turner early in my career, I am fascinated by people who had a vision of how things would change and then built a business or enterprise that changed the world.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow the journey through my LinkedIn account — David Rudolph. You can also keep up with high school sports by purchasing a subscription with the NFHS Network.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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