Back in early April, Meadowlark Media CEO and co-founder John Skipper announced the closing of a $12.7 million Series A round. DAZN, DraftKings and Wasserman are among those backing the creator-centric (their description, not ours) content company. The collective believes that with the demand for content at an all-time high and a relative dearth of independent production houses developing sports-centric content, there is a void—in non-live sports programming (that is, everything but the games)—that Meadowlark believes it can help fill.
Our Take: Meadowlark was founded by John Skipper and Dan Le Batard in January 2021 on a simple, “inarguable premise. The landscape for the acquisition of content is going to be remarkable over the next decade,” Skipper said. “Because [there is this] sort of a generational existential move from people getting their content primarily on linear networks towards getting it on streaming services,” there are many competing platforms that each need a lot of content (which is why we will continue to see consolidation like the recent WarnerMedia-Discovery deal). The longtime media executive suggested there would be “north of $100 billion spent annually on content in the next few years”—including billions of dollars on non-live sports, which is largely underrepresented in the current television ecosystem.
Meadowlark isn’t the only high-profile company chasing the non-live sports content opportunity. Former ESPN executive Connor Schell recently left the “worldwide leader” to launch an independent production company (in partnership with Chernin Group). Mandalay Entertainment (founded by Peter Guber) and SpringHill Entertainment (founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter) are also unaffiliated with an established media entity (think: Bleacher Report/WarnerMedia), and are developing high-quality sports programming.
Excel Sports Management, the sports marketing and management agency that represents Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter, recently announced it too would be making a move into original programming with the launch of Excel Media (their first two projects are going to be docuseries on Jeter and Joe Montana). Like Skipper, Excel founder and president Jeff Schwartz sees a “voracious appetite for sports content through the ever-shifting media landscape. There are many platforms and distribution channels, and live rights only make up a small portion of the day. Meaning content producers have a lot of opportunity to create and sell interesting stories.” Schwartz envisions the company’s media arm filling this need with “athlete-driven stories attractive to traditional and non-traditional outlets, as well as brands.”
Late last month Meadowlark sold the rights to the The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz to DraftKings for $50 million (over three years). That deal, along with the money raised, is expected to give the company the cash it needs to execute on its original business plan (see: create some content, hire executives and talent) over at least the next year or two.
Meadowlark announced last week that both Kate Fagan and Tom Haberstroh signed on, joining Le Batard, Hank Azaria and Adnan Virk in the talent stable. Considering the roster, it is fair to suggest the company will be a major player in the podcasting arena moving forward. But as Skipper explained, Meadowlark’s ambitions reach far beyond the sports audio genre. “The rest of [Meadowlark’s content] will be video. Documentaries. We want to do unscripted reality. We want to do shoulder programming for live events. We think over time we will enter the scripted world. And by the way, while we’re going to be sports-led early, we certainly think of sports as a lens to [eventually] look at other kinds of cultural [subjects].”
The Meadowlark game plan looks a bit like that of the 30 for 30 franchise (launched while Skipper was president of ESPN), which created the mold for last year’s monster Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance. “We have ideas, and we’ll go out and find superior storytellers [to tell them],” he said. The company will rely on third-party production companies and directors (see: work for hire) to actually produce the video content. That should help the startup keep overhead low.
To be clear, Meadowlark does not plan or have ambitions to create a streaming service of its own. “The existential thing going on [right now] is this battle for share among what is already hundreds of platforms,” Skipper said. “The headwinds [to create a new B2C brand] are very strong, and if you create one, you have to feed it. Subscription services are hard [and costly], and not many of them are going to succeed.” Meadowlark intends to sell the content it develops to distributors, at a profit, before production begins.
As noted earlier, Skipper believes the pool of potential buyers of non-live sports content is deep. “The traditional legacy entertainment companies, the networks that still have robust businesses in the pay TV and broadcast universe, the streaming services that the media companies create (think: Peacock), the new streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and the big technology companies in the content business (think: Amazon, Apple and Google)” could all be viable homes for the programming. The former ESPN and DAZN executive indicated announcements on content deals (i.e., they will be more than one-off projects) with a “couple of companies” could be coming “pretty soon.”