A subscription-driven online platform for the leader in California high school sports coverage
Since its beginnings in the mid-1970s, Cal-Hi Sports has offered coverage of high school sports in California that high school athletes, coaches, parents, and others can’t find anywhere else.
Over the decades, the Cal-Hi Sports brand grew from a foundation in publishing weekly newsletters and record books to include partnerships with magazines and TV shows.
In the early 2000s, its online presence grew. It spent four years as a part of the Rivals.com network, where Cal-Hi Sports became #2 on the platform in subscriptions sold among all high school coverage sites. After being purchased by ESPN in 2008, Cal-Hi Sports took its content to ESPN’s domain for several years.
But in September 2012, ESPN.com discontinued its high school sports platform.
It cut Cal-Hi Sports loose.
Cal-Hi Sports stood at a crossroads, with Editor/Publisher Mark Tennis facing an important decision.
Mark was at a point in his life where he felt like he had two choices.
- He could restart Cal-Hi Sports and take it to its own revenue-generating online platform for the first time.
- Or he could look for something else to focus his time on and retain Cal-Hi Sports as more of a hobby or side gig.
Mark recognized that he had some opportunities in rebuilding Cal-Hi Sports.
Having worked alongside Rivals and ESPN for nearly a decade, he was familiar with their revenue models. He knew that on a new platform, Cal-Hi Sports could bring in revenue by selling lots of ads, selling subscription content to readers, or some combination of both. Based on his skill set and what he wanted to do, he favored the subscription model.
Plus, ESPN had given him a severance package that could finance the creation of a new website.
Mark decided to keep Cal-Hi Sports going and continue what they had started nearly 40 years ago, when his late uncle Nelson got the ball rolling.
But high school sports coverage is a marathon — a real year-round affair — so he needed to get moving. He continued publishing content on a free blog as he looked for ways to get a new platform created.
One of Mark’s colleagues with Cal-Hi Sports knew me because we had scouted basketball together. Both were familiar with the work I did for Frank Burlison. They knew Frank and respected his work.
Years later, in recalling our early conversations, Mark remembers thinking that I had a lot of good ideas and did my research on Cal-Hi Sports and the industry. That I had experience scouting and writing about high school basketball helped.
As we moved into working together, we kept in mind how we could achieve Mark’s priorities for the new platform:
- We wanted it to be heavily content-driven, with an emphasis on featuring the newest and best content. Cal-Hi Sports has deep archives that we wanted to make available as well, but we knew that putting out great content on a regular basis — and making sure readers could find it easily — was essential.
- The subscription implementation needed to be seamless. People had to be able to sign up, pay, log in, and renew in a simple way with no headaches. We wanted our readers to have a good experience and feel good about paying for a subscription, and we also wanted to be able to focus our time and energy on content rather than customer service inquiries.
- We had to be able to grow the site, so being able to use the platform for a while and not have to frequently upgrade technologies was important.
Let’s go into these priorities one at a time.
Content drives everything
For four decades, no one has beaten Cal-Hi Sports on California high school sports coverage. The new platform aimed to continue that prolific run.
We tried to think through how we wanted the experience for a reader to go, and what that flow would look like.
First, they’d arrive on the website. What were they looking for? What should they see first? That answer became immediately clear: we should greet them with our most recent content.
We go about doing it in a couple different ways. First, we use an image slider because athlete photos grab people’s attention. The slider stands out more than anything else. Look!
Every reader’s attention jumps to the image slider right away, which is what we want.
We also keep a list of the latest stories in a module on the right sidebar, which you can see in the above image and on the sidebar of every page throughout the website.
People might start off by choosing a free story or a premium ones, which are marked on the Latest News module with the gold image of California. (More on premium content in a bit!)
We wanted to create a good experience for people reading our articles.
We made a choice from the beginning to use large, readable fonts. At the time, many sports websites conventionally used small fonts (12 pixels or even 10 pixels) that looked pleasant but were difficult for many people to read without squinting. Instead, we chose 16 pixel font and kept it that way.
In the years since, many websites decided to do the same thing, but we were ahead of the curve there, and it probably helped us, as analytics showed that people diligently read through our articles.
We sought to strike a good balance, especially within articles, between shining a light on the content while also making people aware of other things they could check out from us.
To accomplish that, we used a design aesthetic that was nice to see and attracted attention without being gaudy or intrusive. We implemented “modules” throughout the site that directed people to new stories, featured content, social media, and partner content. Our modules carry a consistent, clean look that hasn’t changed much in the years the site’s been up: yellow font on a blue background for the header, with a pleasant box shadow to make them “pop.”
By making the content front and center while also letting readers know about what else we offer, we’re able to keep them engaged, enjoying the time they spend on CalHiSports.com, and coming back time and again.
Setting up separate areas for the different sports coverage also helps. From the navigation menu, readers can choose to see only content from their preferred sport. If they want girls’ basketball content and nothing else, they can get it.
Build a great subscription experience
This part is always hard.
On one hand, you need subscriptions to fund the website. On the other, you don’t want to hit people over the head constantly in the hopes that they’ll decide to subscribe.
Throughout the website, we let readers know that we offer “Gold Club” subscription content.
But we also give away a ton of free content. It’s been a trial and error process over time to work out the right balance, but we feel like we’ve found a formula that works for us.
When a reader comes to a premium article they don’t have a subscription for, they’re invited to find out more information about Gold Club subscriptions.
It was also important to us to be congruent with our message and authentic in talking about the subscriptions.
To do that, we make it clear on our sales page what kind of content their subscriptions fund. We talk about how important it is for us to be able to cover many sports for both high school boys and high school girls.
We worked together to come up with subscription options that work well for people. At first we offered just a yearly Gold Club subscription.
Over the last several years, we settled on three different types of subscriptions:
We serve a variety of readers who have different needs.
Some are only interested in one seasonal sport, in which case a longer subscription might not be a good fit. Other readers come to CalHiSports.com almost every day throughout the year, so the annual subscriptions fit their preferences well.
By offering three options, we increase our chances of having the right subscription available for everyone who might be interested.
Choosing the right technology
We use the Paid Memberships Pro WordPress plugin to power our subscription technology and it’s held up well for us. It integrates nicely with our WordPress platform and the payment gateway we use. Readers can manage their subscription from an integrated dashboard, which has helped keep customer service issues to a minimum for the Cal-Hi Sports staff.
We built a custom WordPress theme from the ground up for CalHiSports.com. We felt it gave us the most flexibility in running our own platform, especially with all the different moving pieces we had.
For example, although the initial theme wasn’t mobile-friendly, it took a fairly small redesign in late 2016 and early 2017 to make the site responsive. We felt that while it was important to offer a good reading experience to people on all devices, we didn’t want to be mobile-first to the extent that it hurt the experience for desktop users.
I’ve been a part of mobile-friendly redesigns for other websites in the past, and the Cal-Hi Sports upgrade was one of the best and smoothest.
Readers now remark on how easy the site is to navigate on their phones. With so many readers who are on the go attending high school events, it’s important!
Finally, after some headaches with our first web host, we moved to WPEngine and have had a good experience ever since. When people pay for your content, they expect to reach the website! WPEngine has contributed to the site always being available for readers and loading quickly.
Strategy and marketing
My collaboration with Cal-Hi Sports expanded beyond the initial technical assignment. They leaned on my expertise with online marketing and strategy.
Together we worked diligently in coming up with price points for the subscriptions that could lead to sustainable growth.
We understood there was the potential for a fleeting subscriber base. When you’re writing for many parents who want to follow their kid’s high school athletic careers, you anticipate they might not renew after their kids graduate.
We’ve explored a number of different ideas, from message boards to video shows to podcasts. Some we’ve implemented. Some we haven’t. Some we might yet.
Businesses the size of Cal-Hi Sports need to be thoughtful with the resources they have, and we’ve always tried to do that in a responsible way.
THE RESULTS — “A real partnership”
Since the new platform launched in 2013, subscriptions have risen every year, growing at a steady clip Cal-Hi Sports feels good about.
There have been offers by other groups to purchase the site or merge with it, but Cal-Hi Sports feels good about what they have.
The site’s been able to bring in more than 100,000 visitors on a monthly basis, with thousands of those readers becoming paying subscribers.
Cal-Hi Sports looks at the renewal rate as a primary metric for success and growth, and it’s been quite high. They recognize my strategic and marketing contributions, including toward settling on the price points, as an important factor in that success.
I’ll let Cal-Hi Sports Editor/Publisher Mark Tennis have the last words:
James has been more of a full service partner than just a tech support person or design person. He’s been more of a business partner, a real partnership. That’s been probably the most impressive part of it.
Bottom line is, he’s great with his design, he’s great with his technical support, but probably the most important part to stress is that he’s as much of a partner in everything that embodies the site.