Inc. revisits an audio broadcast service having trouble getting off the ground.
Maybe it's because Frank Mitchell was born on Friday the 13th. His company, SportsBand Network, has certainly proven to be a textbook case of the frustrations suffered by start-ups. Since 1986 Mitchell and his partner, Theis Rice, have poured heart, soul, and massive chunks of net worth into their idea, only to find themselves after four years still struggling to rework it -- still trying to make SportsBand the viable business they're convinced it deserves to be.
The concept of SportsBand is simple enough. Starting with golf, the Dallas company would provide audio play-by-play for spectators at sporting events, using radio transmission and little Walkman-like receivers. Early on the company established it could execute a good, popular program. The continuous Achilles' heel, though, has been making it pay.
A year ago this was SportsBand's plan: in 1990 the mobile road show would go to 15 golf tournaments. Tournament directors would pay to have the broadcast there. Corporations would buy sponsorships. Attendees would rent receivers. Per-tournament revenues would come in at more than $250,000 -- almost $150,000 of which would be pure profit.
How's it going?
The short answer is it isn't. SportsBand will not broadcast at a single 1990 event.
There is, of course, a longer answer. "We wrote off the 1990 season before it started," says Mitchell, because neither tournaments nor sponsors were falling into place. But that didn't mean SportsBand was shutting down. Yes, the staff was let go. But two new investors, Mitchell says, put another $400,000 into the venture. And work continued.
Mitchell rewrote the business plan and set out to create a new team -- including himself and Rice, a corporate sponsor, a broadcast network, a marketing firm, and a radio manufacturer -- using the response they'd received at tournaments in 1989 as a selling point. "We've created a diamond in the rough," says Mitchell, "but this is not the kind of thing that can be pulled out of the hip pockets of two guys."
The new vision has SportsBand reemerging in 1991 with a network partner that can tap more broadcast opportunities for the material, while the marketing company does on-site sales and the manufacturer sells SportsBand receivers directly to the general public.
Mitchell, who's been working on Sports-Band full-time from his home since January -- Rice has gone to part-time -- says these goals are on the cusp of being realized. He has, he says, agreements in principle from a full team of major players. They're talking about testing the alliance at three events next year, including a golf tournament and an auto race.
But by 1991 it will be five years. Isn't that enough already? Between the two of them, Rice and Mitchell have poured more than $1 million of family cash into SportsBand; outside investors have dumped in another $1.5 million. Rice, the company's sole individual general partner, has become insolvent and sought protection from creditors of SportsBand and other business ventures.
Still, neither man will quit. And history shows that some successful start-ups do indeed take longer -- much longer -- than this. "I have to see it through," explains Mitchell. "I still feel this is a big, big concept. And if I can get these commitments locked down, then it will have been worth it. We'll be vindicated." -- Leslie Brokaw
The Company SportsBand Network, an audio broadcast service for golf tournaments, using small radios to deliver coursewide updates and commentary for spectators ("Play by Play," September 1989, [Article link])
Experts' Concerns * Revenue: Is the company tapping the right blend of customers -- corporate sponsors, tournament directors, and individual spectators?
* Cash flow: Can the company sustain itself while waiting for major financial commitments to fall in place?
Results to date 1990: Projected Actual Tournaments broadcast 15 0