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Illustration of John Levy, founder and chief executive officer, Score Media Inc. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of John Levy, founder and chief executive officer, Score Media Inc. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

John Levy: A scrappy upstart who changed the sports broadcasting game Add to ...

John Levy is standing behind the bar at an upscale Toronto lunch spot, taking bottles of flavoured vodka off the shelf and pretending to take deep swigs, pirate style.

The founder and chief executive officer of Score Media Inc. doesn’t usually drink at lunch, and today is no exception. But after an hour of sporadic jokes about the liquid lunches of an earlier time, he’s reconsidering the merits of a midday martini as he passes the bar on his way to the coat check.

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“What do you think?” he asks. “Is this lemon crap any good?”

The exchange wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, if not for the reaction of his considerably younger and slightly embarrassed chief operating officer, who suggests Mr. Levy step away from the bar. He does it with an eye-rolling exasperation that can only come from an aghast relative, and they are, indeed, father and son.

“You know this is going to end up in the newspaper, right?” Benjie Levy asks, not for the first time.

While the younger Mr. Levy might have a better handle on media relations, the older Mr. Levy’s irreverent attitude is what has defined the network since its inception in the ’90s. John Levy is the Score brand personified – humorous, outspoken and brash.

It’s a populist approach that has worked for the channel, which just came off its strongest year, with revenue up 14 per cent to $13.4-million from $11.8-million. The company’s mobile apps drew an average 3.3 million unique visitors a month in the quarter, a gain of 60 per cent from a year ago. Its website drew 1.2 million unique viewers, an increase of 140 per cent.

Anchored around a cable television station that specializes in offbeat commentary, Score and its Internet properties are among the first sites visited each morning by tens of thousands of fantasy sports enthusiasts from around the world, as well as other hard-core fans.

Score is an anomaly among Canadian sports broadcasters. With a market capitalization of $68-million, it’s tiny compared with its main competitors. TSN, owned by BCE Inc., has a market cap of $30-billion, while Sportsnet, owned by Rogers Communications, has a market cap of $20-billion. That David-and-Goliath relationship is something Mr. Levy says helps him attract bloggers who are leery of large corporations and are willing to write at a discount in exchange for exposure.

When it comes to on-air talent and an ever-growing pool of bloggers, Score is just as likely to find them toiling in obscurity on the Internet – such as the guys who now post to the Basketball Jones blog, which used to be filmed in their kitchen before they raced off to their day jobs – as it is to find them coming out of a journalism school.

“I was at a lunch years ago with a bunch of our guys from across different departments,” Mr. Levy says. “And these guys, who weren’t on-air reporters, were more informative and interesting than half the crappy professionals. I realized we could just turn the goddamn camera on them and let people hear them.”

It’s this kind of thinking Mr. Levy believes sets Score apart from its rivals. Where the country’s leading broadcasters have spent millions on rights to high-profile sporting events and the professional journalists to cover them relentlessly, Score has only a minor focus on live events (National Basketball Association games – excluding the Toronto Raptors – plus National Collegiate Athletic Association and WWE events are among the top offerings).

Rather than compete on games, Mr. Levy has decided to compete on the information and commentary surrounding games. The company’s mobile app was redesigned last year to allow users to customize which stats to follow, with a focus on fantasy sports enthusiasts who are able to track 15,000 players and 800 teams.

Its focus on digital offerings allows Mr. Levy to walk with the swagger of a confident underdog. The company’s mobile app is the most popular sports download in the world on BlackBerrys. It is in the Top Five for the iPhone, alongside industry giants such as ESPN.

And as the big Canadian sports broadcasters keep getting bigger – competitors Rogers and BCE recently partnered on a deal for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment – takeover talk is constantly swirling around the 300-person company. So, I couldn’t help but ask about a sale.

“Who have you been talking to?” he says with mock horror. “What have they told you? It wasn’t supposed to get out yet. I’ll have to talk to my people.”

If his attitude is any indication, he’s having too much fun to sell. He started the company in 1994, when he bought a station that simply displayed text-based sports tickers all day long. Several years later, he’d sell his family’s Hamilton-based cable company to focus on Score full time.

He set up in Toronto’s King Street entertainment district, before it was trendy. He wasn’t allowed to put any signs on his building, which he maintains is one of the ugliest in Toronto. But three years ago, he managed to get permission from his landlord to put a giant screen on the front of the building, along with street-level windows looking into the studio.

“It’s such an open environment now,” he says. “You’ll see there’s nothing formal about anything we do. That goes for on-air, with our talent, our programming. So the look and feel of our building has become very important to us, because it’s a reflection of our attitudes.”

With a head start on the apps front, he’s convinced the company can compete effectively with Rogers and Bell through the next wave of technology adoption. His executives have met with television manufacturers, and have proposed things such as interactive sports tickers that would sit in a corner of a television screen and let fantasy sports players know when one of their players has scored a point.

John Levy finds it all a little boring as his son explains the concept of an unobtrusive Score.ca ticker app running at the corner of every channel on the dial.

He’d like something a little more intrusive.

“We should make it so [Score radio host]Cam Stewart pops onto your screen and says ‘Why don’t you just stand up to your wife and tell her you don’t want to watch this shit because there’s a really good game going on,’” he says, pounding the table. “We’ll call it the Cam Alert.”

And with that, he surveys the table and what’s left of his meatball sandwich. The waitress offers a dessert menu, but the lean Mr. Levy, in his late 50s, decides he’s already strayed off script enough for one day.

“Bodies like this don’t come by accident,” he says, as Benjie sighs and rolls his eyes. “The two of us work out very hard. We pretend we are the competition and we just go at it. It’s actually quite effective.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

John Levy, founder and CEO of Score Media Inc.

Background

Born May 21, 1953; raised in Hamilton.

Graduated from University of Toronto law school in 1978.

Lives in Hamilton, commuting to Toronto by car at least three days a week.

Family

Married for 35 years; four children, aged 23 to 32.

Oldest son Benjie, a graduate of the University of Toronto with a finance degree, serves as Score Media’s chief operating officer.

Career

Learned the cable business from his father, Cecil, owner of Hamilton’s Western Co-Axial (rebranded as Cableworks Communications in the late 1990s).

Bought Sportscope in 1994, a sports score ticker. Rebranded and relaunched as Headline Sports in 1997 after obtaining a broadcasting licence from the CRTC.

Sold the cable company in 1999 to focus on television broadcasting with Score Media.

Quote

“Our goal is to have people want to work with us. It’s about the approach to life and the way we run the business. We’ve never been that stuffy organization. It’s about the feel of being a family business – there is a different atmosphere at the Score, which is very unique.”

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