Jeff Karp’s scouting report on himself as a tennis player is fairly modest. “I was a good counterpuncher,” he says. “I optimized my talent and was a tough competitor and did everything I could to compete on a day-in, day-out basis.”
Don’t let the lack of phrases like “huge serve” and “big backhand” fool you: In juniors, Karp was ranked in the top 30 in singles and won two national doubles titles, taking on the likes of Aaron Krickstein and Patrick McEnroe. He went on to play four years at Arizona State.
“Youth sports is something that has shaped my life,” Karp says. “Playing competitive tennis was something that was meaningful and significant to me. I wasn’t good enough to be a pro, but I’ve always kept an enthusiasm and a passion for sports.”
That work ethic and love of competition made Karp a natural to run Sports Illustrated Play. Launched in 2015, SI Play is all about connecting the world of youth sports. It’s a suite of digital tools aimed at helping leagues and teams operate more efficiently. Gone are the days when you needed separate software to build a team website, handle payments, navigate scheduling and store photos and videos. With SI Play, all of that technology now lives in a single, unified platform.
As CEO, Karp’s challenge is simple, he says: “How do we simplify and celebrate youth sports?” It’s an issue that hits close to home. As the father of three teenage girls, Karp—like virtually all SI Play team members—is one of the 150 million people in the United States who is involved in youth sports as a participant, coach or parent. (It’s an $18 billion industry.) He’s spent more hours than he can count on the sidelines and in the stands at lacrosse, soccer and basketball games. Life for a parent such as Karp is filled with questions: What time is practice? Where’s the game? How do I get there? What uniform do we wear? And the most important one of all: Who’s on snack duty?
That’s where the SI Play app comes in. A consistent top 10 most downloaded sports app, it’s now even better. Not only does it offer league-management tools, but now it can also be used by any team, even if the rest of the league isn’t yet on the platform. “You’ve got 15 to 20 kids and maybe 30 to 40 parents on a team,” Karp says. “Play becomes your social ecosystem. When somebody wants to talk about things or share photos or a highlight reel, those 60-plus people are leaning forward. They care about the content.”
But our vision for SI Play is bigger than an admittedly great app. (Actually there are three apps to serve SI Play’s 17 million monthly unique users: SI Play; Tourney Machine, designed for tournament directors and attendees; and iScore, which provides live scoring.) Look for SI Play’s message to be integrated into SI, SI.com and SI Kids. “We want to take those prestigious brands and reengineer what youth sports can be,” Karp says. Earlier this month Play was a huge presence at the Cal Ripken Major/70 World Series in Branson, Mo. The semifinals and the final streamed on SI.com’s Facebook page, and four kids—including two players—served as special correspondents creating content for SI Play and SI Kids. (SIK recently unveiled a section of the magazine dedicated to Play that features tips and gear reviews as well as spotlighting top youth-sports performers, and you can expect to see similar Play-themed content aimed at parents in the pages of SI.)
Reinventing the future of sports is an ambitious goal, but it’s one worth pursuing because, as Karp well knows, the games that our kids play are more than games. “These are some of the most cherished memories in somebody’s life,” he says. “And we want to help people celebrate them.”