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Ex-Disney Exec Ben Sherwood Finds His Mojo With New App to Reinvent Youth Sports Coaching
Mojo aims to be the digital “one-stop coach-in-the-box” for millions of kids and families who play youth sports
After stepping as the co-chair of Disney Media Networks last year, Ben Sherwood wasn’t hurting for opportunities in Hollywood. But the longtime executive decided to tackle a project near and dear to his heart: coaching youth sports — with a tech and entertainment twist.
That’s how Mojo, his new startup, was born in October 2019. Set to launch early next year, the Mojo app aims to become the mobile “one-stop coach-in-a-box” for millions of kids and families involved in youth sports. Mojo plans to host a number of high-quality lessons across several sports and age ranges, so that if you’re looking to teach your 8-year-old some basketball skills, and also help your 14-year-old make her high school hoops team, both can receive age-appropriate lessons.
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“What we’re trying to do is take the stress and chaos out of coaching and give parents and kids access to content and tools to make the whole sports experience more fun, more engaging and easier,” Sherwood told TheWrap, adding that the pricing on the subscription-based app has yet to be determined.
The market is certainly there, with 50 million youth athletes in the U.S. alone. But for Sherwood, who has spent his fair share of time teaching his two sons how to play a number of sports, from baseball to basketball to soccer, Mojo also carries personal significance. He knows how rewarding — and challenging — it can be to coach youth sports, which is why he aims to craft a fun, informative and yes, entertaining way for kids and parents to learn.
Sherwood teamed with Reed Shaffner, a former Microsoft employee-turned-angel investor who also knows a thing or two about elite youth sports. (Shaffner played collegiate soccer at Duke University.) The duo raised Series A funding this past February, with support from investors like producer Tom Werner (“The Conners,” “Roseanne”), a partner in Fenway Sports Group who is also the chairman of Liverpool FC and the Boston Red Sox. Investors also include UTA Ventures and WndrCo, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s holding company.
Sherwood, after years as a high-ranking employee at ABC News and Disney — plus a five-year run as co-chair of Hulu’s board — knows how important it is to grab viewers’ attention right away. Mandalay Sports, the Emmy-winning team behind ESPN’s Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance,” will produce the app’s first content, aimed at kids ages 2-11 in sports the company declined to specify.
TheWrap caught up with Sherwood to talk about his new venture. The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity.
(Sherwood with his son, Will)
To start off, can I have you explain what you’re trying to accomplish with Mojo?
Mojo is a mobile app and a one-stop coach-in-the-box for millions of families who play sports. Our view is that, there are 50 million kids who play youth sports in the U.S., 500 million around the world, and too many kids are dropping out, burning out, coaches are overwhelmed, and we think with great storytelling, content and tools, we can put some magic — the mojo — back in youth sports.
Let’s dive into the content a bit. What do you take from your decade at Disney and apply here to make the content appealing to both kids and families?
If you go on the web, if you look for content in the youth sports space, you find you Google how to kick a soccer ball, you get 750 million results. And among the top results, you’ll find guys in their backyards, kicking a soccer ball that’s shot on their iPhone. My experience at Disney over more than a decade, and also my experience in content creation, telling stories for the last 30 years, is that content doesn’t have to be dry or dull to be informative. In fact, I spent my whole career in both journalism and the entertainment business trying to make engaging content for all ages.
We partnered with Jon Weinbach and Mike Tollin at Mandalay Sports, who are making our first content (offerings). We’re making it high quality: sense of humor matters, good production value, quality storytelling, and also highly credible, authoritative information. We’re working with the world’s top experts in child development and youth sports to make sure what we’re doing is age and developmentally appropriate.
When I was coaching my boys for more than a decade — I have a teenager and a 10-year-old — I used to just sit and search on YouTube for ideas to help my kids. And sometimes I’d be watching some professional team’s training session in Europe, and I’d try and apply that to my 5-year-old, and that didn’t work out to well. And sometimes I’d be watching a collegiate-level hitting instruction that I’d find on the web, take it out to a bunch of 8-year-olds, and that didn’t go so well. My son, when he turned 13, he’s a very avid soccer player and goalkeeper, said lovingly, “Dad, I think you’ve exhausted lessons from the web — I think it’s time for me to move on to the next level of coaching.” So now he’s in high school, getting coached by professional coaches.
But at Mojo, we’re trying to find age-appropriate, developmentally-appropriate, high-quality content and technology tools, so that if you’re coaching 4-year-olds, you have exactly what you need, and if you’re coaching 10-year-olds, you’ve got what you need. The age groups we’re interested in, with youth sports, this is all about having fun. This is not about making the Olympics. If you’re planning for your kid to participate in the 2032 Olympics, you probably have all the tools you need for that. Mojo is for everybody else, who is just trying to get their kids to have fun, develop habits for a lifetime, enjoy the experience, enjoy being on a team, and get better at sports — and develop a lifelong love for activity and sports.
In your time coaching your sons, what was the most challenging aspect — and how are you trying to tackle it with Mojo?
Every parent just wants to help their kid succeed, to give their kid a chance, and every parent wants their kid to reach his or her potential. I saw on the fields of the East Coast where I worked, and the West Coast, I’ve seen coaches who reach kids, who help kids, who inspire kids and who make kids grow and compete. And I’ve also seen too many situations where I’ve seen kids in tears because coaches don’t know how to connect with kids because they don’t have the expertise and experience. With Mojo, we don’t want it to be about luck. Are you lucky you got one of those coaches who can do it, or are you unlucky? We want to help all parents get the tools and technology and content they need to make a difference.
My biggest challenge was, I’ve coached four sports, and I’m not especially qualified in any of them, and I was just wanting to do my best and help the kids. I’m worried I ruined a few Major League Baseball careers because I didn’t teach them the right way to swing, and I’m pretty sure I’ve ruined a few Major League Soccer careers because I didn’t show kids the proper way to kick. What I want to fix is, it turns out there’s a right way and a wrong way to do some of this stuff, and at MOJO, we want to make that available to everybody.
How has the pandemic shaped how you go about crafting the content at MOJO?
The pandemic has been brutal for sports. And unfortunately, more and more kids are at home, fewer kids are playing, and it’s also led to a significant shift in behavior. Increasingly, families are turning towards technology for all kinds of answers — from at-home education to at-home sports training. While the pandemic has been terrible for sports and the country, at Mojo we’ve been in stealth mode, heads down, so that when kids and families are ready to go back onto the field, we’ll be ready to lead the way with the Mojo app and our content and technology to help them. So that when kids are on the field or at home, they’ll have Mojo to help make the experience better.
It’s been a rough time out there, and the economic impact of the pandemic will be severe and will have a real effect on youth sports. But we feel by mid next year, with an estimated 100 million vaccines out by June, we feel there’s going to be this huge amount of pent-up energy to go back outside and play. And we think we will be ready to meet that pent-up energy when everybody comes back out.