Michael Schreiber calls his startup the biggest sports network you’ve “never heard of, and that’s okay.”
Almost two years ago, the former Comcast Corp. executive. launched sports advertising firm Playfly Sports LLC in Chester County that now reaches 83% of American sports fans, flashing 230 billion ad impressions annually across 8,500 professional and college televised games, streaming platforms. , digital banners, radio shows and newspapers.
It’s one half of a two-company mini-boom of sports tech firms in Berwyn with ties to Comcast. Playfly’s offices are in a former skating rink on the outside of SEPTA’s Paoli/Thorndale line. Epoxy.ai, also a start-up founded by former Comcast executives, leases offices on the line’s entrance tracks within a stone’s throw of PlayFly. Epoxy.ai personalizes sports betting through mobile phones.
Monetizing sports fan engagement is what it’s all about here: Playfly through advertising and Epoxy.ai through betting. And former Comcast executives know all about the economics of big-money sports, the persistence of sports TV ratings and the value squeeze from sports-media rights.
“It was hard to work on the programming side of Comcast without being involved in sports,” said Chris Reynolds, a co-founder of Epoxy.ai who knew and worked with Schreiber at the Philadelphia company.
Schreiber’s idea has been to create a sports platform for national brands like TD Ameritrade or BMW to reach regional sports fans without those brands calling out local sports teams. A liquor company, for example, could advertise hard liquor in New York and low-calorie beers in Los Angeles “on one bill,” Schreiber said.
The sports advertising market is large and widespread. About 800 brands collectively spent $6.2 billion on ads during NFL telecasts during the 2020-21 season, according to an advertising research firm and reported by the Sports Business Journal. The NFL is just one league, and most advertising is national. Playfly mines sports advertising regionally.
Andrey Mikhailitchenko, a 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 brands advertised during movies or general entertainment.
To get out of the blocks quickly, Playfly has acquired seven companies that support Schreiber’s vision for more than $100 million, giving it access to a technology platform and ad 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 privately held company, but said it was profitable. In addition to Schreiber, Sinclair Broadcast Group and investment firm Baltimore Access Holdings have invested in Playfly.
Sports fans are five times more likely to recall brands advertised during college or professional games than during movies or general entertainment.
Andrey Mikhailitchenko, California State University
The firm employs 50 people in Berwyn. On its website, Playfly has posted jobs in Berwyn or Philadelphia. Playfly employs 350 in other parts of the country, with openings posted in New York; El Segundo, California; Atlanta; Chicago; and Detroit. In addition, Playfly employs approximately 300 contractors.
In July, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Playfly entered into a 13-year deal with the University of Central Florida, agreeing to pay the institution $125 million for its media rights.
“Playfly is betting they’re going to make more than $125 million to pay Central Florida” for those rights, said Kirk Wakefield, a retail marketing professor and sports advertising expert at Baylor University in Texas.
Playfly and UCF confirmed in news releases that they reached an agreement. They have not disclosed financial terms.
In college sports, Playfly is taking on heavyweight Learfield, owned by investment fund Atairos Group Inc., Wakefield said. Atairos also has ties to Comcast — deep ones. Former Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis controls Atairos, based in Bryn Mawr and about nine miles from Playfly’s offices. Comcast agreed to fund Atairos with $4 billion.
Sports advertising used to be about mass audiences. But Wakefield said brands now want to know that their ads have “changed minds and behaviors” of consumers, he said. “The organization that can come in with that kind of data will win the day.”
For some fans, sports games and arenas already feel saturated with advertising.
“Saturation can happen if you are overloading [teams] with easy money,” said Mikhailitchenko, the Sacramento professor, pointing to professional hockey jerseys in Europe emblazoned with the logos of multiple brands.
But he also believes there is an “infinite market” for sports marketing because advertisers can segment audiences, targeting groups of fans by demographics, lifestyle, geography or behavior.
The proximity of Playfly and Epoxy.ai offices is no coincidence. Cities in the western suburbs are Comcast bedroom communities accessed by Regional Rail, which also carries commuters the opposite way from Philadelphia to Berwyn.
Epoxy.ai “had a great team that lived mostly in Center City, and they had to be okay with a reverse commute,” Reynolds said. “And there’s nothing more manageable than getting off the train and walking to the office.”
Reynolds also said it was great to see spin-off groups and start-ups in the region, similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to Silicon Valley or other innovation hubs.
Schreiber, 46, a Baltimore native who worked at NBCUniversal, moved to the Philadelphia area when Comcast bought NBCUniversal in 2011.
“The goal was to take everything on the TV in your living room and make it available on digital platforms like the iPhone,” Schreiber said of his first Comcast project.
In 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 could not easily reach local sports fans, who are the most passionate and valuable eye for advertisers.
In 2016, Schreiber left Comcast for a new post as chief content officer at Altice USA, a cable television and broadband provider in New York. He did not want to move his family to Paoli, so he went to Altica’s offices by train.
Schreiber left Altice in June 2020, and a few months later, he launched Playfly and began looking for a local headquarters. “I didn’t want to be in a strip mall somewhere,” Schreiber said.
He was fascinated by the Berywn Theatre, which opened in 1913 and brought Broadway shows to the suburbs. Later uses included a roller rink and then law offices.
After $2 million in renovations, Schreiber opened Playfly offices in the building in May. An indoor basketball court was placed in the excavated basement, and staff tables occupied the court above like a press box. On that main floor was placed the outdoor turf, imitating a football field. Banners of professional and college teams cover the walls. There is a gym and lounge areas.
Before the interview, Schreiber threw a basketball. “Make a foul shot. You should do one before every meeting.”