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YSN Hits Home Run with High School Sports

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — When he launched his streaming service in the summer of 2017, D.J. Yokely didn’t expect to be standing on a baseball field a year and a half later and interviewing the winningest coach in college baseball history.

But in the time since YSN Live broadcast its first high school football game for the Leetonia Bulldogs, the digital platform has grown by leaps and bounds, covering 21 high schools in the area, from Austintown Fitch to Wellsville. And in February, YSN – short for Your Sports Network – announced a partnership with Youngstown State University to stream home baseball games, plus a few select road games.

YSN doesn’t limit its coverage to just games, Yokely notes, as reporters – many of whom are students at the high schools they announce – put together player profiles, a weekly Coach’s Corner and coverage that extends beyond the field. In total, YSN employs 20 part-time workers to cover games and has an executive staff of six.

“We feel that whether you’re undefeated, on the rise or one that doesn’t have any wins, all student-athletes should be represented and have a platform to have Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Grandma, Grandpa and everybody else be able to see them,” Yokely says. “We’re not just there for the flash-in-the-pan or the top player. We’re there for all student-athletes to give them a platform to be seen and heard.”

That’s how Yokely, along with YSN general manager Steve Leslie, wound up in Tallahassee, Fla., in late February talking to Florida State University’s Mike Martin, who just days after sweeping a three-game series against Youngstown State would win his 2,000th game in 39 years as head coach of the Seminoles.

“The funny thing is I didn’t get caught up in the moment,” Yokely says. “When you’re interviewing these kids, you’re not just interviewing and 11th-grader or 12th-grader, you’re interviewing a future mom, dad, lawyer, doctor, veterinarian. They’re the ones who are going to remember this.”

While there were many nos in trying to launch YSN – many schools were hesitant to commit to an unproven business, Yokely says – the site seems to have found its niche among the schools it covers today, Leslie says.

“A coach’s corner, a commercial, a player profile — those are what we hang our hat on. You can do an interview with a young man or young woman and then grandma who lives in Tampa can hear it,” the general manager says. “When we were doing Cardinal Mooney football games, we were getting 1,500 viewers for games. … People knew that every week we’d do a coach’s corner with Coach Fecko and that there’d be a player profile. “

It’s that kind of attention that Yokely wanted to give all student-athletes when he started YSN. Coverage of high school sports in the Mahoning Valley has always existed, he says, but coverage is largely dedicated to top teams and college recruits. Beyond football and basketball, the network covers wrestling, baseball, volleyball, soccer and more.

“Any time you can promote your kids, whether it’s in a newspaper or on TV or wherever else, that’s what we’re looking for,” says Ed Ridgeway, athletics director for Leetonia High School. Especially for a small school like us, I’m big on that. They had the opportunity and we jumped on board.”

Leetonia High School, with a little more than 200 students, was the first high school to work with YSN. The platform airs all Bulldogs football games, along with “probably 75% of our basketball games,” select baseball games and a weekly Coach’s Corner segment.

“There’s a great opportunity with things like Game of the Week, but it’s a snapshot. They don’t follow for the entire year,” Yokely says. “There are teams like the Leetonias of the world that don’t get any coverage.”

Having games streamed online can also serve as a tool in recruiting, for both student-athletes and colleges. YSN sells audio and video from its streams – $1.99 and $2.99 per game, respectively – for athletes and their families, whether its used for cutting together highlight taps to send on to college coaches or to watch at home.

The experience also happens on the other side of the mic. Most high school games are announced by students at the school, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the broadcasts. In turn, many students can put that down as experience when applying to college or for professional jobs.

East Palestine announcers Dan and Tim Figley look on during a game.

“It raises the bar and level of interest for everyone. It’s not just for us. If you take a school like Hubbard, we have their own students announce boys basketball games and it’s phenomenal,” Leslie says. “They get dressed up. They do their profiles. They can give a better interview and they can go to school with that.”

Adds Yokely, “That gives them the outlet, just like I had when I was 14 and was a PA announcer at East Palestine. … If we can help one kid that wants to be on ESPN one day or has visions of being Chris Berman, then we’re all for it.”

On the other side of the recruiting field, the broadcast of the home games of the YSU Penguins can help draw more recruits, especially those from outside the area, says associate athletic director Rick Love.

“In today’s world, with the ability to watch on your phone, tablet or laptop, just having access to be able to follow your team has become a real recruiting tool. It’s nice to tell a recruit that all of your home games will be streamed in some way, shape or form,” he says.

Before partnering with YSN, baseball was the only Penguins sport not broadcast over the internet. Through a partnership with ESPN, all Horizon League members have their games streamed on ESPN+, which put sports such as volleyball, softball and soccer on the same tier as football and basketball. However, Love says, the technical setup at Eastwood Field, where YSU plays its home baseball games, wasn’t suited for ESPN to broadcast, leaving the team in the lurch.

The decision to partner with YSN, he continues, was essentially a no-brainer.

“We’re able to offer the families and friends of our students-athletes the opportunity to follow them. We wanted to give those same opportunities to those who play on the baseball team,” Love says. “ If you’re coming here from another state, which a lot of our athletes do, your parents can follow along and see how you’re playing. They can be involved that way rather than just seeing a score or getting a text after a game.”

Even with its schedule filling up with high school and college games, each with its own set of challenges – “We had a guy broadcasting out of a makeshift pumpkin patch at one game,” Yokely says – YSN still has its eye on expanding the list of schools it serves.

“No one’s going to confuse us with ESPN, but we don’t want to be,” Yokely says. “As long as there’s a chance to even record the game action, we’ll be there. Our biggest thing is just getting the game online.”

Pictured above: YSN co-founder D.J. Yokely and General Manager Steve Leslie at Mike Martin Field after YSU baseball game against Florida State.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.