Former Superior coach takes his team onlineLike most people in the early 2000s, Dave Williams had no idea how to adequately harness the power of the Internet. What the former Superior girls basketball coach did know, however, was that he wanted more publicity for his team.
By: Louie St. George III, Duluth News Tribune
Like most people in the early 2000s, Dave Williams had no idea how to adequately harness the power of the Internet.
What the former Superior girls basketball coach did know, however, was that he wanted more publicity for his team. Williams’ solution was an online newspaper — an almost antiquated notion today — dedicated solely to covering the Spartans.
Hence the birth of the iFan Sports Network, which today bears almost no resemblance to the original concept thanks to Williams’ then-stunning realization in 2004: He could stream video over the Internet.
Goodbye, online newspaper.
The options were endless. So, too, were the growing pains — primarily that it was 2004 and nobody knew exactly where this Internet thing was headed. People couldn’t believe that Williams planned to stream local sporting events online. But he did, and a Northwestern High School volleyball match in the fall of 2004 served as the guinea pig.
“Those first few years I’d call people and they had no clue,” Williams says. “The answer I got all the time was, ‘you do what?’ ”
Williams’ novel scheme proved prophetic as the popularity and viability of online streaming continues to surge. iFan crews can be spotted at Northland courts, fields, rinks, rings and race tracks throughout the year. Dan Conrad of Lake Nebagamon, a partner in the venture with Williams, of Poplar, and Superior’s Craig Morrissey, estimates they provide coverage for more than 300 events each year — at least.
“I think 300 is very conservative,” Morrissey said.
The ever-evolving network continues to grow, so much so that Conrad admits they’ve had to turn down coverage requests. A new partnership with the University of Minnesota Duluth will have iFan streaming every UMD home volleyball match this fall, as well as all men’s and women’s basketball games in the winter. That’s in addition to existing contracts with the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in January and the American Birkebeiner in February.
One of the neat things about online streaming, the partners agreed, was providing another outlet for fans to follow their favorite teams — or siblings. They noted a Lake Superior Conference swim meet a couple of years ago where one of the athletes was a foreign exchange student from Europe whose family was able to watch the meet online in the wee hours of the morning. That story gave way to one about iFan’s streaming being projected on a massive screen aboard an aircraft carrier so a soldier could watch his younger brother’s football game.
“This started in Poplar, Wisconsin, and now it’s grown worldwide,” Conrad said of a seemingly international audience.
It wasn’t easy getting to this point. It’s a big enough headache simply trying to keep up with technology that seems to change every few minutes. Add in the inevitable headaches that stem from spotty Internet connections — especially when an event is played in a rural setting — and it only underscores the dedication Williams, Morrissey and Conrad have displayed for a project that doesn’t exactly line their pockets with cash.
“We all have other jobs,” Morrissey said.
“Real jobs,” Williams quipped.
The money iFan does generate via advertising is enough to pay for equipment upgrades, website maintenance and streaming fees.
Their equipment allows for any of the three, along with freelance volunteers — to grab a kit, trek to a game and broadcast it online. And that’s the appeal for the trio, all self-described sports nuts. Not only are they constantly around athletics, but they have a unique platform with which to highlight athletes who may otherwise go unnoticed by the general public.
“Those events are going to happen whether we’re there or not,” Morrissey said. “We’re there to showcase what’s happening at some of those small schools.”
Williams says iFan tried a pay-per-view model a few years back, with monthly subscriptions costing $5, and, “Our viewership just tanked.” Today, an average broadcast draws a couple hundred viewers, though that number can vary widely and is difficult to pinpoint.
Through various broadcast arrangements, iFan has streamed games from Florida, New York, Michigan and California. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Conference did its first streaming on the network, and this year iFan will produce UMD’s home football games for the My9 TV station.
Indeed, this little online newspaper’s all grown up.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
After 10 years with the same website, iFan launched a new one recently. It can be found at www.ifan.tv.