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Making sports fans of the diaper set

Los Angeles Times, 6/26/06

Former Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Michael Eisner knows a thing or two about captivating children with cartoon characters. Now he is hoping to hook kids on college sports -- even before they walk or talk.

Eisner's new entertainment business, The Tornante Company, announced the purchase of Team Baby Entertainment, a start-up company that makes college-sports booster videos aimed at children ages six months to 5 years.

The 30-minute videos, each featuring a different university, shows children in football jerseys and cheerleading outfits running, dancing and playing to the school's fight song. Among the 20 produced so far, there is ''Baby Irish'' for Notre Dame, ''Baby Aggie'' for Texas A&M and ''Baby Cowboy'' for Oklahoma State.

While there are scores of child-friendly educational videos, ranging from the Baby Einstein series to Sesame Street, apparently not much was available for parents eager to get their kids excited about their alma maters.

Team Baby's 32-year-old founder Greg Scheinman, was one of those parents. He wanted to share his love of the University of Michigan's football and basketball traditions with his then 1-year-old son Auden.

Finding nothing (and living in Texas), Scheinman decided to make one 30-minute video, called Baby Longhorn, which stars Auden and introduces young viewers to the University of Texas' sports teams, mascot and campus.

One year later, dad says Auden recognizes the Michigan Wolverines and can do the Texas ''hook-em horns'' sign.

In addition to the dressed-up toddlers, each video gives a child-friendly glimpse of that particular school's campus, mascot, and marching band antics.

In one year, the company has sold 35,000 units at $19.95 retail, said Scheinman. They are sold through the company's Web site as well as stores such as Learning Express, a children's toy store.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed but Eisner holds full ownership and Scheinman will remain chief executive.

The Team Baby acquisition is part of a broader effort by Eisner's new company to acquire media and entertainment content. In April, Tornante, together with Spark Capital, Shelter Capital Partners and Time Warner Inc., announced a $12.5 million investment in Veoh Networks, Inc., a San Diego based company that delivers video and television programming over the Internet. Eisner is on the board of directors.

Eisner also began hosting his own talk show on CNBC's ''Conversations with Michael Eisner'' in March.

Eisner's decision to purchase Team Baby, surprised even Scheinman who lives in Houston and started his company with a $200,000 investment in April of last year.

Scheinman said he and Eisner bonded over their New York roots, their fondness for camp, (Eisner published a memoir about his camp experiences) and their bicycle tours through the French Bordeaux region.

''We hit it off right away,'' said Scheinman, noting that Eisner drove his own rental car and arrived without an entourage. ''He is very gifted at making you feel comfortable.''

As the company's owner, Eisner will give Team Baby the access to cash and entertainment industry contacts to help it grow, said Scheinman.

Eisner, who retired from the Walt Disney Co. last fall, presided over Disney's transformation from a struggling company worth $1.6 billion into a nearly $32-billion global empire with 10 theme parks, the ABC television network, cable channels such as ESPN.

The former executive has been circumspect about his new ventures -- other than to name his company Tornante, which he picked up on a bicycle tour of Italy and means a change in direction.

Scheinman said he is optimistic Team Baby will strike a chord with today's parents. ''At the end of the day it's a really good business,'' he said. ''We want to put out really fun, heartwarming, educational interactive product.''


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