Ep. 33: Building A High School Network with Kevin Calver
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Kevin Calver, CEO of High School AD Network, joins Rob Cressy to talk about overcoming the challenges of the high school market plus the journey of building out a network. How did he build momentum at the beginning and how did the technology side of things help him evolve? Is instant replay in high school athletics a good thing?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Kevin Calver, CEO of High School AD Network. Kevin, great to have you on the show.
Kevin Calver: (00:30)
Pleasure. I really enjoyed being here and looking forward to our conversation today.
Rob Cressy: (00:35)
Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?
Kevin Calver: (00:40)
Well, who I am, I'm a retired school employee. I was an athletic director and assistant principal for 25 years. I retired in June One of 2018. During my time as an athletic director, I developed a list to meet some of the needs in the athletic office and my son and one of his best friends from college, we developed our team here and I came up with this platform for athletic directors to reach out to their colleagues.
Rob Cressy: (01:13)
So let's start at the very beginning of this because in building out a network, I love the concept of networks because it's the gift that keeps on giving. The challenge, of course, being how you get one up and running because it takes one to two to three to all of a sudden you start providing that value. So take us to the beginning part of building this and sort of how did that happen?
Kevin Calver: (01:36)
Gosh, probably about 20 years ago now, 15 years ago I was athletic director and we always had teams drop games before the season. So we would go to our first league meeting in August and I'd have a school tell me that well we play varsity football week eight, but I'm going to drop my JV game that next morning. So now I got to look for a week eight JV football game. We had schools that would drop a freshman game. So I got to try to find a week six freshmen football game and a week nine JV football game. It's August 5th or August 1st smog a second. And who do you contact? Where are you going to go? And so I, I was the president of the Northwest AD association here in Ohio and not to reach out to our schools in the Northwest, I began to compile email addresses and that's you got my list filled with every AD in West Ohio. And I would use that to reach out to and to try to find the games that I needed. I also used it as a present to reach out to our school's ADs to try to get in, to join our association and be involved in some of the activities that we had.
Rob Cressy: (02:51)
When you first started, what was the value proposition for the other ADs to want to be part of what you are doing?
Kevin Calver: (02:59)
It was a free service. And so what would happen is they would send me open dates that they had and I would forward them out and they'd find games if they needed a football game and they would send it to me. I would send it out to athletic directors, they'd find their games. So they're looking at anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 depending on who they played and what week it was and that would be pretty valuable for them.
Rob Cressy: (03:23)
All right. So as you're building this, at what point does this become overwhelming? So as you're building a list of people who say, I got an open date, I've got an open date, all of a sudden you open your inbox and you're like, holy smokes, Batman. I've got a hundred requests in here. Now, this is taken on a life of its own.
Kevin Calver: (03:41)
Well, I I slowly gathered the email addresses from around the state of Ohio where I had over 900 email addresses for assistant ADs, middle school ADs, and high school ADs and they got to a point where I was spending about three hours a day sending out open dates cause I would, I cut and paste myself. I broke down to geographic regions or the districts and I did all that leg work. And then I would sit there and as they would send me their openings, I would forward them out. So I would get up at five in the morning and send open dates or my lunch hour, in the evening, 11:30, 12 o'clock, send that email and just got overwhelming. My son was on me about the developing high school AD network for about a year and a half. I kept putting him off and I got to the point where I spent too much time. My son told me "they take care of it themselves, all you do is monitor it, see what's going on and you're have an extra two hours and a half during the day time." So we put it together came up with the website and we're at today.
Rob Cressy: (04:51)
So with that, certainly I know the feeling of being so passionate about something that it consumes you and you keep wanting to do it more, but you always get to a point where you say how much time is this taking versus what am I receiving from this? Is it a monetary thing? Is it influence? Like what you're actually getting in terms of, because you only have a finite amount of time on your hands there and building this as a business. So for you, what sort of help takes this to the next level in the past just being in Northwest Ohio?
Kevin Calver: (05:29)
I guess your last question as far as finding those email addresses and emails. I go to AD conferences when you become a conference participant and you get a list of ads with their email. I use those. I go through the directories of all the States and click and one at a time load them up. It takes hours, but if something, I think it's worth it. And then as you said, reaching out to all the other ads I've always want to give back. I know I'm huge at saying, ADs are overworked and underpaid. It's probably one of the most thankless jobs in the district until somebody needs something or they want something. After doing that for 14 years I was AD and I'm now being involved with the quality of people that want to do that job. They're all serving. They're all service people if you will because they're not doing, because of the money they're doing it for the sake of the kids involved in athletics and so for me, my main reason was what I've always done is I want to give back and work with ADs and the other side of it, as far as the monetary side, we kind of fell into that from the standpoint that when I was an athletic director, I needed to find someone to work on my gym floor or I needed to find someone to redo my infield on my baseball field or when we relined my track and we never knew where to go. We'd always get coaching athletic director magazine. I'd get that book and look a few pages in it and I'd throw it on the table behind me and it would sit there. I wanted to do something trying to access that book and find out what page it was on, and contact with my fellow ADs and say "you put in a new track. How'd you, what'd you do? Who'd you use?" So what I wanted to do was on our site we have a vendor's link. The purpose of the vendor's link ended up being two-fold. But initially, it was for athletic directors to have access to vendors at their fingertips. If they had known nothing about doing a gym floor, they can click on our site, go to Ohio Floor Company, they can talk with Ohio Floor Company, they'll help educate them. If they get a quote, they're loving that. But their idea is to help give back, to give themselves in just the way in the door. And this is a way for ADs to get in touch with vendors that could provide a service for them.
Rob Cressy: (07:48)
So let's talk about the technology side of things. As you grow and build a larger network, manually sending out emails, just one at a time probably isn't going to do it. And as you said, you've had to build a website and then comes the vendor's link side of things. So how have you had to adapt to the technology to help make this more efficient so that you can help and give back more? because that's one of those things, sometimes you want to be as much of a helper as possible, but the technology side of it needs to catch up to be as efficient to allow you to deliver that value.
Kevin Calver: (08:22)
All right. Well, I have to let you know, the team we have that we put together is exceptional. I'm the retired AD. I talked to the ADs, I worked with all of them. My son Trey is our director of finance and business operations. He deals with all that. He's a finance major and just finished law school in December. So he takes care of all of our legal issues also. Then we have Devin Gingrich who was one of my son's friends in college that writes all of our code. The young man is absolutely amazing. Every year he's adamant about sending out a survey each spring to our members and we get back input from them and we've talked about what we think we need to include from those surveys then he goes and works on that. And it's, we've developed over time, probably the first six months we've made four changes to the system. But from the technology side, what's nice now is I don't touch an email. The user goes on the website, they load the information, they hit send in and go, and I get every one of them being an administrator. And so I'd double check just to confirm what's going on, who using it, what's what they're sending out. They're self-controlled I guess if you will. They can send it to the geographic region they want or the state they want and they get to pick and choose before I did all that, when I did the list, so from that standpoint, you'll get well. The other nice thing about it is when someone joins or signs up, I get the email, I confirm every person first.
Rob Cressy: (09:59)
So it's sometimes taking a day or two to try to confirm that you are the AD at this school or you are the coach of this school and we want to make sure we keep the integrity of the program going. So I confirmed them all after the confirmation, I would, I would personally then send an email to each person that signed up. Well definitely be able to create an automatic mailer that once I hit approved, they automatically get the email and it goes right to him. So it's been awesome the way things have developed and it's, you know, the more and more people we get, we're going to have to increase our team. You understand that. And right now with, with our 2100 or over a hundred users, things have been pretty good for us.
Rob Cressy: (10:41)
Was there a tipping point or a specific instance in which you noticed the momentum building with this? So the process makes complete sense for how you are doing this, but was there a light bulb moment or a wow, this is a thing like that helped build your momentum?
Kevin Calver: (10:58)
Well, it was and I remember it wasn't very long ago actually, it seems like it was yesterday that the three of us meet every year. Devin's in Michigan and my son is in Columbus, Ohio and now he's probably going to be relocating to Chicago probably within the next month. And when he was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, finishing school and then I'm here in Ohio. So we don't get together face to face very often. So each summer we take time to the call corporate meeting, the three of us that the first summer we met after we got this started and Devin commented, this is just amazing. I wrote something that so many people are using and you know, so from redneck code and it kind of hit us that, you know what, this is real. I mean the number of people who are using this and we get an idea and I keep track every day of how many emails have been sent.
Kevin Calver: (11:53)
And our site says some like 25,000 and some hundred emails had been sent overall. I keep daily just, and that's every post that goes out on the site. I keep just poster maybes and coaches and we're anywhere from 140 to 250 per week, that ADs send out. The big thing is, I noticed that increase when we started out sending them 20 a day, 25 a day, and then we'd get up to the forties or fifties there been times we've hit over a hundred emails a day if they're on the time of season, early in the fall, looking for a freshman and JV games especially in baseball in the spring and they're having all the rainouts or trying to find things. So it was probably about six months after we started and we saw the number of emails increasing daily. I was like, wow, this is like legitimate. This is, we have some credibility here.
Rob Cressy: (12:45)
So were you actually sending out a hundred emails a day, for example?
Kevin Calver: (12:50)
I was not, I was just watching them. I was seeing them because what happens with our website the AD becomes a member who signs up, you're going to miss his account. So he sends out what he wants when he wants. I kind of laughed. The first year we had this going am I use our athletic director Shelby High School as our kind of our guinea pig with all this stuff. He was more than happy to help me and I kind of laughed at it. I was sitting at home they had an away basketball game. I stayed home that night and, and all of a sudden I looked at my phone and at 6:20 PM there was a posting from Shelby High School athletic director that he needs a baseball game spring. And I knew he was at his son's JV basketball and I knew, so he's sitting in the bleachers at a basketball game.
Kevin Calver: (13:35)
He sends out a post for a game, boom hits send and he goes back watching the game and it takes about a minute to send a post. So I don't send any posts at all. The numbers control their own. They decide what sports they want information about. They don't have ice hockey, they don't have gymnastics. They can de-select those sports. So I, I can, if I'm a football coach, I can just de-select every sport. The other nice thing is that they control if it's a middle school or high school, if you're at a nine through 12 and you don't need middle school information, you don't click on that. So it's been pretty neat from that standpoint.
Rob Cressy: (14:08)
Gotcha. So someone's not inundated with every single request across the entire platform from everywhere, it's more you've built the network so that now we can start to segment it based on JV versus high school, different sport, different regions. Now we're going to get something that's tailored for you. That just cuts out so many, so many steps in between. For someone who says, well, just because we're in the same network together, you might not know John across the state, but he's looking for something and you have the opportunity to at least be aware of it in case you want to jump on it.
Kevin Calver: (14:42)
Right. You know, we found out that if I need a varsity football game, I'll play anywhere in Ohio. I'll go to Michigan where we're located, we're in Northcentral, so we're about an hour south of Cleveland. We'll go anywhere in Ohio, we'll go to Michigan and we'll go to Indiana. If we're looking for seventh-grade basketball, we're not leaving our district, we're going to just send it to Northwest Ohio. But then you have those schools and Clear Fork High School down just South of Mansfield and North of Columbus about an hour. They're at a point where they can drive probably five miles either direction and be in another district. So they're in the Northwest, they can play Northeast, they play central, they can play East, they've got four different districts they could meet. So if I have a seventh grade game in Clear Fork I'm hitting those four districts because I have access driving just a few miles to Mount Vernon. That'd be the other direction to Ashland. I'm in a different district. So, from that standpoint, they knew the other thing we looked at was at one point a lot of associations around the country are like this with their services. They have their state only. We send out an email, it goes to every person in the state to sign up for it and you're five hours away and it's a seventh-grade basketball game, you get the information. So, and the other thing we looked at was we have a lot of schools that are landlocked because I'm in Michigan, I'm in Toledo, I'm in Cincinnati, I'm in Youngstown. In your case, it would be Chicago, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana, they're close, they could play. But the service that the state provides just does our state. So with High School AD Network, I can go in as an AD and in Chicago and say, okay Indiana, I think that's going to be section one for them or district one, I'll hit district one it sent, it goes to that northwest corner of Indiana and I can find games. There could be a seventh-grade game or varsity football game depending on how far away from that district.
Rob Cressy: (16:39)
What are the biggest challenges facing the high school sports market?
Kevin Calver: (16:44)
The biggest challenge I would say today would be the general attitude of the spectators than the general attitude of the expectations of officiating, expectations of coaching. You know, it's funny, I had three kids that played sports in high school and I was a different parent than I now know with no horse in the race. Officials got a lot better. And you know, I still look at coaches and wonder why they did that or why they did this. But the one thing that it happens is as I go watch games, you know, I'll be sitting in the second to the top row of the bleachers in a 4,000 seat arena. And the people around me are complaining about a call on the floor in a basketball game. And I want to think, you know, and I don't say anything, but I want to say there's a reason why the officials down there on the floor with the players, it's a little bit better advantage point than what we have up here in the top and we're trying to make calls and we're so far away and doesn't happen. I understand a lot of times in officiating, football, a lot has to do with the angles and where I'm standing on the field. But it's amazing the number of people that think they can officiate whatever sport from 15 rows, 20 rows up in them, in the bleachers when they're not even certified to be an official. And I think that's a really tough point right now.
Rob Cressy: (18:05)
Wow, that's, that's extremely interesting. One of my favorite quotes, happiness is a function of expectations. And with it I can completely see it because we get all consumed by almost everything that we do because of the way that media has evolved where we always have social media, we always have email, we always have a TV. We have Netflix on our hands, so everything is there for us when we want, however, we want. So people are accustomed to having everything in a pristine situation. Then we move it over to the sports side of things and we're bringing this same zeal, but it's almost like that the expectation is everything is perfect, but the reality of the situation, no one is perfect because all we would have to do is look at our current jobs. Do any of us do a perfect job at what we do at work? And the answer is no. No one's perfect at this yet. However, in a high school basketball game, you see a referee who's doing the best that he can. Certainly, we all get frustrated when things don't go our way or whatever. But I get it. I think that almost speaks to the larger what's going on with society in the world right now where, Hey, can we not just enjoy the fact that we're watching our kids play sports and we're doing it in the best situation possible. And you know what? We're just going to trust the process and everything's going to work out well.
Kevin Calver: (19:34)
Well, no doubt. You know, the one thing, and I've said this, as long as I can remember having technology, it's kind of the best of times, worst of times, you know? And it's amazing because some of the things we can do that we couldn't do in the past, it is awesome, but some of the things that we can do now we couldn't get in the past aren't very good things either. So I guess from that point is I think that technology has made us an impatient society. We expect things now. We want to be in direct communication right now when before we'd make a call maybe or we get it back a day or two later and now we expect it right now. The other thing I think is from the athletic side is an instant replay, checking the monitors. Let's go back and look. The players have human error. The officials are doing the best they can also. And to go back in, I think it's wrong to do this to officials. You had them make a call and then go back in and look at it on a monitor and say, you are right, you are wrong. Where you're being judged right there at that minute when as you said, they're doing the best they can and working as hard as they can. They go through levels to get to the points they're at. They climb the ladder from high school to college, to pro and division three, college division one, and they're doing the best they can. I think that having that, I'm just gonna replay for the officiating or the teams. I throw my flag and we're going to fix that. I think that takes a little bit away from the game and it's almost a point now where officials just make a call, it won't matter because they're going to go look at anything. So I think that's kind of, I don't get me wrong, I think it's a good one if something is really bad that happens. Say there was a fight in the game or some power, whatever. I think it's good to have at that point. But I don't think we should have this replay changing the outcome of games.
Rob Cressy: (21:23)
I think one of the biggest challenges in that is what is the domino effect? So if I'm a parent of one of these teams in high school, it's like are these kids playing for just to win or are they trying to go to college to go to the next level? And what is a team winning in the state tournament to go to the next game? What domino effect does that have and does that one call in the first quarter with seven minutes left? What is the domino effect on everything else that goes there as opposed to what is that like just on a Thursday in February in a league game? And how does that manifest itself and or what's the regulation around it? I completely agree with what you say there, but I can see both sides of it or do we want, is the number one goal to get the call perfectly correct or is the number one goal to have a 60-minute game where we're going to do this and allow these teams to compete? It's a little bit difficult to know what the actual result is that we're looking for
Kevin Calver: (22:30)
When I think that what you said or your favorite quote about expectations and so forth. I mean, that's a big part going into a game, everybody expects to win. However, you get to a point, depending on how good your team is, maybe just want to pay you to play a good game. You just want to be competitive because I think those expectations change. The unfortunate thing is you have a whole lot of parents in our society that want that scholarship for their child. I was in a position here with three children. I had one that was on a full-ride and the other two didn't get a scholarship. The scholarship was neat to have because obviously, it was a financial gain for us. But like I said, best of times and worst of times the way things would work out. But I think so many parents look at athletics as a way to get a college scholarship and they don't understand how small that market is and how hard that it is to get into that market. They don't understand how hard kids have to work out and, and how would they have to be to get there. You know, I don't know if you've watched division three basketball, but in Ohio division, three basketball is pretty darn good. And it's the amazing number of parents that when they hear that a division three coach is recruiting them. They don't understand, go watch a game, go watch them play. And then going back to in high school it should be education-based athletics. What is he going to do to help me become a better person? The idea is to grow and learn and be a productive person when I graduate. Learn how to be on a team, learn how to put forth the effort, be able to hold myself responsible for my actions and things that I'm doing. I think sometimes you kind of take that out of context because of the heat of the moment and what we see on TV and the NBA and the colleges and everybody wants to be the best. I mean for crying out loud Ohio State in their bowl game were going crazy with calls that were made there. Did I agree with them all? No, I didn't agree with them all. You would have thought that you know, when people start wanting to make threats to coaches or players or officials, we're getting out of control. Now the other part of it is I think is that, even in elementary basketball and elementary sports, we've seen all kinds of crazy things happening there also. And we're talking fourth grade, fifth-grade kids. I think that the way that the media has covered our athletics, we know everything all the time and the amount of money that college coaches make, the amount of money and professional athletes make, and the way that that economy is being driven. I think that's something that drops down in because everybody wants the money. We're all kind of greedy.
Rob Cressy: (25:39)
And we will end on that. And I love the way that you framed those education-based athletics because I'm someone who is very much about habits, routines, and success mindsets. And if you think about the skill sets that can be learned out of these students by doing these things, and guess what, if a referee were to make a call that didn't go your way, the life lesson that's going to be able to teach you to not dwell on that, to look forward, to have the ability to bounce back, the ability to work harder in all the things that can manifest from it so that we're not in this only perfect society. Because the reality is none of us are perfect. Life has never been perfect. So our ability to bounce back from it and learn these things because that's the thing. Where are people learning about overcoming adversity or overcoming when something happens to you that wasn't your fault, that shouldn't have happened. And it's like, well, we want to stop that, but guess what? Life doesn't work that way. So it's a great teaching lesson. And I love the way that you framed that.
Kevin Calver: (26:42)
Yeah. I've said this often, life's not fair. Life isn't fair and you can do everything you're supposed to do and things still don't work out. You still got to keep it going. You still keep plugging and be the best you can be and be productive, productive citizens.
Rob Cressy: (26:57)
So Kevin enjoyed this conversation. Where can everybody connect with you and the highest school AAD network?
Rob Cressy: (27:03)
Well, they can get us on Twitter at @HSAD_network. And we're also on LinkedIn. For any athletic directors or coaches out there, highschooladnetwork.com
Rob Cressy: (27:16)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. I'm curious about your thoughts on instant replay in high school sports. Do you think there is a place for it or do you think that expectations are being taken too seriously with this? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter at @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram at @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms at @robcressy.