Social site devoted to making young athletes feel like MVPs

NOTE: This column originally ran in the July 9 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

Mark Monaco always wanted to be on ESPN.
A one-time student athlete and die-hard sports fan, Monaco admits he’s addicted to the all-sports cable network. But he’s also is grounded in the reality that his level of athleticism would never grab ESPN’s attention.
Then, about three years ago, he had an early-morning revelation while getting ready to watch his beloved network.
“I started thinking how awesome ESPN was … then I thought about how many kids are out there who are good players but not great enough to make it in major leagues and how I could come up with a site that would give them their 15 minutes of fame,” the Wheaton resident said.
That idea led Monaco to develop and launch, a social networking site dedicated to young athletes, as well as school- and community-based sports teams.
MyMVPs is basically a cross between ESPN, Facebook and YouTube, according to Monaco. Individuals and teams can create profile pages at no cost, and among the site’s key features are team pages, instant messaging and video uploading.
It’s the ability to post and showcase athlete videos that Monaco said is a key draw.
“We’re like ESPN because we give kids a chance to see their highlights,” he said. “They are able to put up their videos and watch the plays they made that might not ever get highlighted on the ‘Top 10 Plays of the Week’ on ESPN.”
Operating with a 17-person staff out of an office on Roosevelt Road in Wheaton, Monaco said the site currently has about 20,000 participants. While the bulk of the site’s users are from the DuPage County and Illinois regions, he said they have had visitors from about 60 countries, and site traffic continues to grow steadily.
“We’re jumping daily, literally moving up, and we haven’t spent a penny on advertising,” Monaco said. “It’s all word-of-mouth.”
While Monaco and his partners have been spreading the word about MyMVPs to local businesses and groups, one partner in particular has given the company a huge public boost — Chicago sports legend Mike Ditka. The former Chicago Bears player and Super Bowl-winning coach recently made an appearance for MyMVPs at the annual DuPage County Regional Business Outlook, pitching the site’s potential to more than 600 regional business leaders.
Monaco said he met Ditka several years ago through some contacts while he was on the board of the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame and pitched the idea to him over a dinner shortly after incorporating MyMVPs.
“About five minutes later, he said he wanted to be involved,” Monaco said. “It fit in with his beliefs about sports, involvement with kids, and he knows the importance of social media. He signed on as a small partner and has become the face of the site.
“And how can you ask for a better guy in sports, especially in Chicago?” he added.
The site makes its money through a number of traditional and nontraditional streams, Monaco said.
The bulk of the revenue comes through traditional web advertising. He notes direct ads are big for two reasons: the site keys on local, and is focused on athletics.
“Most of our traffic and eyes right now are local, from DuPage and the surrounding counties, so it’s easy to get someone like Jersey Mike’s to be a sponsor,” he said. “We get a lot of local companies advertising” like orthodontists and chiropractors.
But, since the site is focused exclusively on youth sports, it is also attractive to national companies such as equipment manufacturers.
“We can say we’ve got 20,000 kids on the site and 8,000 play football and 2,000 play soccer.” he said. “If Spaulding has a new soccer ball they want to market, we can focus them on those 2,000 soccer players.”
MyMVPs also subscribes to Google AdSense to draw additional revenue, as well as Tremor Media, which embeds commercials into videos. Monaco says they do not use Tremor at the moment, but may consider adding it as the site builds more followers and traffic.
Monaco sees MyMVPs’ features growing as the site becomes more popular. One area he envisions expanding is the site’s Elite 100 Showcase, which they currently do for high school basketball players.
Monaco compares the showcase to a sports combine, where athletes are invited to a camp and their skills are assessed and ranked by coaches.
The basketball showcase already has the attention of local high schools, he said, and he’d like to expand that into other sports, as well as extend the range to the middle school level.
“We eventually want to be the site where we can highlight top 100 players in 8th grade in boys and girls sports in the U.S.” he said. “It’s a diamond in the rough.”
Another, more ambitious goal is to create the ability to live stream sporting events.
Monaco said he would like the site to be the portal for anyone to set up a live feed of their child’s game, which could be watched anywhere by family and friends.
“Mom could go to the game with her laptop and a video camera, and dad could sign on and watch the game from wherever he is,” Monaco said. “We want to be the website where anybody in America who wants to watch a local amateur athletic event can sign into the site.”
While it was a big risk for Monaco to “retire” from his job in wealth management and invest time and money into building MyMVPs, he’s confident from the growth over the last three years that MyMVPs could very well be the next big thing.
“We’re building a model that is very unique. Nobody is doing just what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re taking a risk, but it’s a risk worth taking and it’s all been fun.”
And it may be his best pitch to finally make it on ESPN.