When COVID-19 canceled all the planned summer camps for Kenny Smith’s kids, the two-time NBA champion took matters into his own hands—channeling his television experience to launch The Jet Academy. Smith, who has run summer basketball camps for the last 20 years in Raleigh, N.C., near his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, did what everyone else has had to do to stay socially distant: He took his camps virtual. But his idea of virtual is a bit different. Smith actually modeled his instructional programming after a TV show.
“I said, ‘Why should the pandemic stop everyone’s growth?’” Smith told Sportico. “So I created the first virtual sports academy. It’s basically an hour TV show. We have graphics that pop in. I poached our TNT staff so I have those guys shooting the actual video and doing the production behind the scenes.”
Shifting an in-person camp into a successful virtual offering forced the Turner Sports NBA analyst to rely on his secondary experience set—his broadcast career—and outside opinions. Smith turned to Guy Oseary, Ashton Kutcher’s business partner, for guidance. Oseary recently stepped down from his position running Maverick, the talent management collective he founded in 2014, to concentrate on his entrepreneurial and investment interests. Oseary’s particular investing focus is in technology and entertainment companies.
While Smith declined to comment on what he invested in the site, he did say developing a streaming platform is “an expensive process” and his team called it a “multi-million dollar site.”
In the four weeks since The Jet Academy launched on July 20, more than 4,000 kids have participated in its online camps. Participants can purchase one-week sessions or memberships of either six or 12 months for unlimited access. To encourage participation after the pandemic put youth sports on pause for several months, Shaquille O’Neal and American Express stepped in, providing separate $35 discounts to early registrants and AmEx cardholders.
Trying to keep the camps relatively affordable pushes out the possible financial return. While it’s too early to tell if his investment will pay off in the long run, Smith is pleased with the product and the global reach it has already gained.
Designed to mirror the programming on TNT (the network on which Smith serves as an analyst for Inside the NBA, alongside O’Neal, Charles Barkley and host Ernie Johnson Jr.), the site’s development process, which usually takes up to nine months, took less than four. “Because of the pandemic people were easy and accessible,” Smith said. Quick creation also meant camps could start sooner.
Smith started the academy with bi-weekly basketball programming featuring both NBA and WNBA stars. Hawks point guard Trae Young, the Pacers’ Victor Oladipo, Storm star Breanna Stewart and Mercury center Brittney Griner served as some of his first instructors. The live-streamed offerings include a week-long intensive camp experience including daily drills, warm-ups, tips, question and answer sessions, video submission reviews and more from each week’s hosts. The daily sessions, each 45 minutes to an hour, are also available on demand for those who miss the live airing.
The plan is to continue camps throughout the year. Combined with the greater reach that going virtual brings, Smith’s online approach has taken his camps from summer offerings in local markets to year-long global teaching tools.
“The other day we were streaming, and I can grab kids and ask if they want to be a part of the live call. The first kid was from Miami. The next kid was from Jersey. The third kid was from El Salvador and the fourth kid was from Taiwan,” Smith said. “We were about to do drills, and I saw it was dark there. I said, ‘Where are you, in your garage?’ He said, ‘No, I’m in Taiwan. It’s night time.’ We’ve never had that community of kids with like-minded thoughts at one time at a live basketball camp. This is something that I [want to] continue doing to give kids around the world an opportunity to participate.”
Next on the agenda is expanding the program’s advertising worldwide to further increase the camp’s share of the international youth audience. Partnerships with American Express, NBA2K and iHeartRadio were key to The Jet Academy’s initial push, but Smith now wants to make greater global inroads. Plans to launch programs across the Atlantic in September are in progress through a partnership with NBA Europe. China, home to a huge basketball fan base, is his next target.