A new Chester County sports-tech firm channels ads to 83% of U.S. fans
Former Comcast executive Michael Schreiber has launched a sports-focused advertising firm that pulses out 230 billion advertising impressions a year.
Michael Schreiber calls his start-up firm the biggest sports network that “you’ve never heard of, and that’s OK.”
Almost two years ago, the former Comcast Corp. executive launched the sports-ad firm Playfly Sports LLC in Chester County that now reaches 83% of U.S. sports fans, pulsing 230 billion advertising impressions a year through 8,500 professional and college televised games, streaming platforms, digital banners, radio shows and newsletters.
It’s one half of a two-company mini-boom of sports-tech firms in Berwyn with connections to Comcast. Playfly’s offices are in a former roller rink on the outbound side of SEPTA’s Paoli/Thorndale line. Epoxy.ai, also a start-up founded by former Comcast executives, leases offices on the line’s inbound tracks within rock-throwing distance of PlayFly. Epoxy.ai personalizes sports bets through mobile phones.
Monetizing sports fan engagement is what it’s all about here: Playfly through advertising and Epoxy.ai through betting. And the former Comcast executives know all about economics of big-money sports, the persistence of sports-TV ratings, and squeezing value out of sports-media rights.
“It was hard to work in the programming side of Comcast without being involved in sports,” said Chris Reynolds, an Epoxy.ai cofounder who knew and worked with Schreiber at the Philadelphia company.
Mining advertising revenue regionally
Schreiber’s idea has been to create a sports platform for national brands such as TD Ameritrade or BMW to reach regional sports fans without those brands calling around to local sports teams. An alcoholic beverage company, for instance, could advertise hard-seltzer drinks in New York and low-calorie beers in Los Angeles “with one invoice,” Schreiber said.
The sports advertising market is huge and diffuse. About 800 brands collectively spent $6.2 billion on advertising during NFL telecasts during the 2020-21 season, according to one ad-research firm and reported by the Sports Business Journal. The NFL is just one league, and most of the advertising is national. Playfly mines the sports advertising on the regional level.
Andrey Mikhailitchenko, business professor at California State University in Sacramento, said sports fans are five times more likely to recall brands advertised during college or professional games than they are to recall brand advertised during movies or general entertainment.
To sprint quickly out of the blocks, Playfly has acquired seven companies supporting Schreiber’s vision for more than $100 million, giving it access to a technology platform and advertising inventory for professional baseball, basketball and hockey games that it can sell to national advertisers. The most significant of the deals were three former Fox Corp. companies: Home Team Sports, Impression Sports, and FOX Sports College Properties. Other acquisitions allow Playfly to sell sponsorships to colleges, and sell naming rights to arenas.
Schreiber declined to provide revenue for the private company but said it was profitable. In addition to Schreiber, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Baltimore investment firm Access Holdings have invested into Playfly.
The firm employs 50 staffers in Berwyn. On its website, Playfly has posted job openings in Berwyn or Philadelphia. Playfly employs 350 in other parts of the country, with posted openings in New York; El Segundo, Calif.; Atlanta; Chicago; and Detroit. In addition, Playfly hires about 300 contractors.
In July, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Playfly entered a 13-year deal with the University of Central Florida, agreeing to pay the institution $125 million for its media rights.
“Playfly is betting that they will make more than $125 million to pay off Central Florida” for those rights, said Kirk Wakefield, a professor of retail marketing and expert on sports advertising at Baylor University in Texas.
Playfly and UCF confirmed in news releases that they reached a deal. They did not disclose the financial terms.
In college sports, Playfly is taking on heavyweight Learfield, owned by the investment fund Atairos Group Inc., Wakefield said. Atairos also has links to Comcast — deep ones. Former Comcast chief financial officer Michael Angelakis controls Atairos, based in Bryn Mawr and about nine miles from Playfly’s offices. Comcast agreed to finance Atairos with $4 billion.
Sports advertising used to be about a mass audience. But Wakefield said that brands now want to know that their advertising has “changed the minds and behaviors” of consumers, he said. “The organization that can go in with that kind of data will win the day.”
For some fans, sports games and arenas already feel saturated with advertising.
“Saturation can take place if you are overloading [teams] with easy money,” said Mikhailitchenko, the professor in Sacramento, pointing to professional hockey jerseys in Europe patched over with multiple brand logos.
But he also believes that there is an “endless market” for marketing on sports because advertisers can segment the audience, targeting fan groups by demographics, lifestyle, geography or behavior.
The close proximity of the Playfly and Epoxy.ai offices is not a coincidence. Towns in the western suburbs are Comcast bedroom communities accessed by Regional Rail, which also carries reverse commuters from Philadelphia to Berwyn.
Epoxy.ai “had a great team that lived primarily in Center City, and they had to be OK with a reverse commute,” Reynolds said. “And there is nothing more manageable than getting off the train and walking to your office.”
Reynolds also said it was great to see spin-offs and start-ups cluster in the region, similar, though on a smaller scale, to Silicon Valley or other innovation hubs.
Passionate fans as advertising targets
Schreiber, 46, a Baltimore native who worked at NBCUniversal, relocated to the Philadelphia area when Comcast bought NBCUniversal in 2011.
“The goal was to take everything on the television in your living room and make it available on digital platforms such as the iPhone,” Schreiber said of his first Comcast project.
Negotiating content deals for Comcast, Schreiber said he realized that big advertisers could reach a general sports audience on ESPN and other national networks. But they couldn’t easily reach local sports fans who are most passionate and prized eyeballs for advertisers.
In 2016, Schreiber left Comcast for a new post as chief content officer at Altice USA, a cable TV and broadband provider in New York. He didn’t want to relocate his family in Paoli, so he commuted to the Altice offices by train.
Schreiber quit Altice in June 2020, and several months later, he launched Playfly and began looking for a local headquarters. “I did not want to be in a strip plaza somewhere,” Schreiber said.
He was charmed by the Berywn Theatre, which opened in 1913 and brought Broadway plays to the suburbs. Later uses included a roller rink and then law offices.
After $2 million in renovations, Schreiber opened the Playfly offices in the building in May. An indoor basketball court was put in the excavated basement, and employee desks ring the court above like a press box. Outdoor turf was laid on that main floor, emulating a football field. Professional and college team banners cover walls. There are a gym and areas to hang out.
Before the interview, Schreiber tossed a basketball. “Take a foul shot. You have to make one before every meeting.”