Illinois State senior Blake Whittle has always had a passion for high school sports. Now, he is using the skills he learned at Illinois State to turn that passion into a business of his own.
The organizational leadership major is the creator of High School Zoom, a streaming platform that allows high school sports fans from Illinois and around the country to watch events for free. Whittle started the company last spring shortly after the streaming service The Cube was acquired by the National Federation of State High Schools Associations (NFHS) Network. The Cube provided free streams for high school sporting events, including Whittle’s alma mater, Pontiac Township High School. NFHS quickly shut down The Cube’s free service and replaced it with the network’s pay-per-view model.
As a high school student, Whittle was involved in streaming sporting events through The Cube with his broadcasting club.
“When NFHS acquired and shut down The Cube, it created a void in the high school live streaming market,” Whittle said. “I think it is ridiculous for parents or students to have to pay to watch high school sporting events.”
High schools pay an annual fee to have their events be able to be broadcasted on and hosted through High School Zoom. The startup partnered with three schools during the past school year, including Pontiac Township High School. Whittle said it was important to start small to see where the service’s problems lie and figure out solutions to improve them as their user base increases.
“Now that we have the first year under our belts, we are ready to go full steam ahead,” Whittle said.
Along the way, Illinois State has supported Whittle’s venture. In November 2018, he received a $5,000 award from the William and Nancy Yarger Entrepreneurial Support Fund, which promotes professional development in Illinois State students and turns their business ideas into reality. Additionally, he credits Professor of Entrepreneurship Dr. Mark Hoelscher with helping him acquire the resources needed to start the business.
“I can’t say thank you to him enough,” Whittle said. “It has been great having someone who is looking out for new opportunities for me and is excited to see where High School Zoom will go.”
Even with the backing of his Illinois State faculty mentors, Whittle realized he needed more help. He knew senior Max Quinn through their shared involvement in University Program Board. The marketing and professional sales major was a student-athlete in high school and knew high schools are looking more into live streaming sports.
Whittle told Quinn about High School Zoom last November, and Quinn joined the startup shortly thereafter. Quinn’s primary duty is reaching out to high schools across the state and telling them about what High School Zoom can offer. He believes the platform can be a solution that benefits schools, student-athletes, and fans.
“I’ve had a couple of sales jobs in the past and my biggest takeaway is that you can sell anything if you genuinely care about it,” Quinn said. “I really think High School Zoom is that kind of startup.”
Whittle and Quinn received a unique opportunity in the spring when they were contacted by high school sports recruiting app SportsThread, who asked them to live stream their first-ever All-American basketball game. The pair were looking for advertising partners and realized the stream’s audience would be perfect for the Office of Admissions. They reached out to communications coordinator Dillon Maher ’17, who was impressed with their presentation and decided to partner with the startup.
“It was a great way to get our message in front of our target audiences,” Maher said. “We had a good experience working with them, and it is definitely something we would consider doing again in the future.”
Whittle and Quinn are hard at work trying to get more high schools on the platform for the coming school year. Their goal is to have at least 20 schools streaming their events through High School Zoom this fall. Whittle has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly they have reached the Chicago market
“Our initial goal was to continue to expand here in Central Illinois, but we are getting a lot of positive feedback from the big schools up north,” he said. “It will be huge for us to break into that market.”
For Redbirds who are looking to become entrepreneurs, Whittle stresses the importance of networking with peers and mentors.
“Look at all of the resources Illinois State offers for startups,” Whittle said. “Not just material resources or even financial resources, but people resources. Talk with some people, talk with your professors. Run your idea by them and see what they think. Once it seems like you have a feasible idea, just go for it.”